At the moment, I’m wading through the deep end of revisions. Though revisions can feel drawn out and challenging, this is my favorite part of the writing process. I’ve been poring over my agent’s notes, and as I do, a series of little light bulbs have been clicking on, one by one. Suddenly I find myself viewing my manuscript in a completely different light. The story has two alternating points of view, telling different “sides” to the story, that eventually merge together, and it all takes place in gritty, turn-of-the century New York City. The problem is, Character A is very solid and her motivations are clear, her stakes high, and her resolution satisfying. Character B needs work—she’s naïve and just too good. Good enough to be annoying. No one likes a Pollyanna and so I’ve ruminated on how to shape Character B while still preserving her personality. It’s taken me quite some time to brainstorm and to try a few different ideas, and I wasn’t sure why that was, but I’ve finally struck upon something.
The real problem is that I’ve been holding back. Afraid to make Character B a difficult character to like, afraid the reader would reject her because of her flaws. In my head, I’ve been constraining myself with historical character tropes as well as not going deep enough. That’s not the kind of writer I am, or want to be. Flaws, after all, are what make characters interesting and also human. When a character either battles or overcomes their flaws, it lends the resolution weight as well, giving the story a much more satisfying end. So why then, had I been afraid?
Writing without Restraint
For one thing, this novel is a risky venture. I’ve—once again—tried on an atypical time period in a setting with purely fictional characters. In other words, the book may not sell. (Historical novels have a set of rules and I’m bending a couple of them here.) I’ve been down this road a couple of times before, and it’s not an easy one. But that’s just it. There isn’t a single thing that’s easy about writing or selling books, and holding myself back by being too afraid to step out, or by considering the commercial aspect alone, will not create a great book. I suppose I’m writing about this today because I didn’t expect this—I didn’t expect that after seven novels I might fall into the trap of making choices about characters to target the marketplace. Of being afraid to shake things up. Needless to say, I’m grateful, as always, for my critique partners and my agent and their wisdom. Now I know I have to bust out of this place of restraint and fear, but how do I do it?
I sat myself down to answer and think about these things:
- You must toss your expectations of who this character is out of the window. Rather than crafting her, follow her on the page. Let her show you her secrets and her deeper thoughts. How do they surprise you? Ask her questions and let her answer you, in her own voice.
- You must give your character nuance, a tic, and a flaw. How do these aspects of her character come through in three different scenes? How do they shed light on her motivations? How do they help her and also prevent her from understanding her world around her in a more evolved way?
- You cannot be afraid to take your character to difficult places. What’s the most difficult obstacle you can present to her? How does it prevent her from achieving her goal at various points in the story? How does it change her world view? Does her flaw play into this as well? This means you will have to go to difficult places emotionally, too. This, I believe, can be one of the major underlining issues. We hold back because where we must go is frightening and emotionally taxing, and we must channel it to the page. No easy feat.
- You cannot be afraid of experimenting. To slice and dice and rewrite sections of your manuscript. Writing takes work. So what? Everything worth having or doing is work. That work is what gives the object of your desire weight and meaning.
Finally, I’ve been counseling myself to look the fear in the eye. After all, I’m already committed. I’m six drafts into this novel for one thing, but also, I feel its message for readers, as well as its personal meaning for me, are too important—far too important to take the easy way out, to hold back. Now, I’ll just need to make a few bold choices because, hell, I just may be setting myself up to fly.
Can you share a way in which you caught yourself writing a certain character or scene or even a story idea as a reaction to fear? How do you keep the pen moving, the ink flowing? How do you push boundaries in your own writing?