When Therese Walsh posted a prompt on Facebook, asking those of us going to the Writer Unboxed UnConference—
What do you love about the main character of your work-in-progress? What makes you want to spend time with him/her? What, if anything, makes it hard to spend time with him/her? Are any characters in your WIP pulling your focus, asking for their own story, maybe, or changing the tenor of your work for other reasons?
I couldn’t come up with a clear answer. You see, I’m at the tentative beginnings of a new project.
But I also couldn’t let Therese’s question go. It stayed in the back of my mind as I sat down to write, and I wondered—what was it I’d loved about past characters? What compelled me to write hundreds of thousands of words about them? I decided that answering the questions about them might lead me as an exercise, a sort of guide post, to getting to know my new main character(s). Basically, I’m hoping I might learn what kind of characters intrigue me . . . and why.
What do I love about my main character?
Book 1: Annie is 30-something and recently divorced. She moves to a new town to start over fresh. I love Annie’s spontaneity and sense of adventure as well as her courage to live in a place that doesn’t easily welcome outsiders.
Book 2: Maggie is a 50-year-old mom whose kids have just left for college. She helps a friend get off a murder charge. I love Maggie because she challenges everything head on. She’s also funny and warm, and I’d like to be friends with her. She does hard things that need to get done.
Book 3: Ellen is nineteen, a freshman in college who is recovering from a plane crash that killed her father. Her injuries leave her with a unique symptom: time travel. She travels to 1823 where she falls in love with a college student who becomes in her time a famous author, and she makes the courageous decision to stay with him in the past (he cannot travel to the future). I love Ellen’s sense of adventure and her ability to persevere through physical pain.
Book 4: Marin is eighteen. She dreams of saving wild horses. She lives in the 1960s, and her boyfriend joins the Army to fight in Vietnam. After he is killed in action she is lost but eventually finds the courage to go on with her dreams. I love Marin’s depth of love and her strength of courage to go on.
Reflection: I love main characters who are courageous and tough when faced with life-changing adversity. But I also love characters who are vulnerable and not afraid to admit their fears and insecurities. I am a big-time worrier, and my worries often paralyze me. I wish I could be more like my characters—moved to action when faced with danger or adversity—maybe that’s one of the reasons I create characters like this.
What, if anything, makes it hard to spend time with her?
This is a tougher question. I really needed to think hard and honestly about it for each character . . . partly because I’m (often) challenged as I attempt to create characters who are whole and complete: warts and all. I forget that flaws, weaknesses, and imperfections create more interesting, relatable, and authentic characters so that readers can feel engaged and emotionally connected to the story. Unfortunately, I need to admit to myself that my characters sometimes suffer from perfect character syndrome. And as described in this blog from the Goshen Public Library by Helen M. Pugsley, “perfect characters are boring.”
My character Maggie, in particular, is a bit of a Suzy Sunshine. Readers have commented that she, her husband, and her marriage are “too perfect.” I never saw it as I was writing the character—I actually thought Maggie was too weak and not self-reliant enough at times—but since I received the comments, I’ve realized that it’s at least sometimes true. In the sequel to the mystery novel, I worked harder to make Maggie authentic and more well-rounded and to give her true (and obvious) flaws and make her less of a perfect character.