Friday, January 28, 2011

Excuse Me, Do I Know You?

Or maybe the title should be, How Well Do You Know Your Characters?

As it turns out, not nearly as well as I thought. I’ve had the plot for my current WIP for a long time. In fact, years. Unfortunately, this led me to make a major mistake in getting to know my characters. And I didn’t even realize what the issue was, until I read someone else’s book.

This book is not new, it’s a couple years old. It’s essentially, an ‘insider’s guide’ to a popular series that’s been out for several years. It contains deleted scenes from the books, author interviews with the characters, in reverse, the characters interview the author. A novella, profiles of the characters, and questions to the characters posed by readers. And this barely scratches the surface. And no, the title doesn’t matter for the purpose of this post.

As I read, the sales and marketing person inside me stood up and cheered. Brilliant, simply brilliant. Once I finished the book, I marveled at how well this woman knew her characters. It was like they were real people to her. They came to her house, she went to theirs. Now don’t get me wrong, my characters are real to me too. But not like this. I confess that we’ve never shared a glass of wine.

And this led me to realize my own mistake. I’d overlooked something critical in my story. Because I’d carried this story around so long, I didn’t take the time to really know my characters. I thought I did. I’d spent years with them. But familiarity led me to brush right by a really important detail.

The problem I’ve been having is that I just didn’t buy into my heroine. I had no faith in her abilities to handle the problems I wanted to throw at her. So I went back to all the ‘how to build your characters’ information that I’ve gathered over the years, re-read it, and then thought about it in the terms of actually knowing this woman as a person. Not a character, but a real, live, breathing, need to earn a salary to make a living person.

That’s when it hit me. I wouldn’t hire her. She was missing a major experience component for the job she applied for. She would have been a pushover. In fact, she was. There was no conflict in the woman. Julia Cameron didn’t want to hire her, she felt pressured to do so, at my behest. Well, damn. If I didn’t believe she could handle the job, how could my readers believe it?

I tried to justify keeping her. To myself, to Julia, and to the rest of the team. A total, no-go. I couldn’t believe this one tiny detail had stalled my story. But it did. So, unwillingly, and after several rounds of painful editing, I let her go. She’s gone.

Reluctantly, I started the interview process again. It wasn’t long before a suitable candidate appeared. I passed her on to Julia, and she agreed. This woman rocks. If the team gives her a hard time, she’ll hand them their ass on a platter. As for Damon, this guy is literally in for the ride of his life.

My point to all this aimless rambling is that hopefully you can learn from my newbie mistake. If your plot hits all the proper high and low spots, your pacing is tight, and your story still isn’t working, take another look at your characters. In fact, invite them to dinner. You might be surprised at what you find out after a couple of glasses of wine.

1 comment:

  1. Ohman. Now my curiosity is rampant and I'm dying to meet the new girl!!

    Yah, those characters. Every once in a while mine do things that totally surprise me (like, say, being dead instead of showing up to a certain rendezvous planned 30 years before, or having a gay brother, LOL). You just can't tell those sorts of things about people by their looks, huh?

    Excellent post, as always.