How well do you know your main character? Better than you know your best friend? Your partner? Better than you know yourself?
I thought I knew the 13-year-old boy at the heart of my children’s book. But there was a common thread to some of the criticisms I’d received on earlier drafts. The voice isn’t quite convincing; I haven’t got a clear enough picture of him; I’m not sure I cared enough about what happened to him. It was a real worry. I tried to address this through plotting and dialogue, and even changed the whole book from third person to first and then back to third again. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I still wasn’t quite there.
There’s lots of advice to be found on this particular problem. Some people recommend filling out a questionnaire on everything from your character’s family history to their favourite food. I’ve no doubt this approach can be very helpful, but in my case, the answer lay in something much more straightforward.
I wasn’t seeing him properly. Literally, seeing him.
And by that I mean that his appearance was all wrong.
It happened like this. When I first started to put the story together, I was writing it for my then nine-year-old son. I gave my character, Josh, my son Joe’s colouring and hair, just because I knew it would make Joe smile when I read it to him (it did). The story changed many times but Josh’s appearance remained the same.
Then about a week ago, I was at the beginning of a major edit and I had a flash of insight that almost knocked me off my chair. Josh doesn’t really look anything like my son. I suddenly had a powerful mental image of a boy with quite different colouring and within minutes I was frantically scribbling down everything from the basics like hair and eye colour, to the fact that he had the end of his little finger missing following an accident as a toddler.
Life had suddenly been breathed into Josh and he was no longer a vehicle for my story, but a real, three-dimensional boy. It was a great feeling and meant that I was able to fly through my latest edit. At last, I really knew Josh.
I’m fully expecting there to still be a million things wrong with the book. But the moment when he became real to me was quite magical. For me, those moments are what writing fiction is all about.
So if you’re having trouble getting to ‘know’ your main character and you’ve tried some of the other tips, why not spend a few moments picturing them? You may be surprised where it takes you.