Getting to know you

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.


Susie Nott-Bower said...

That's very inspiring! It's as if some part of you knew all along, but just had to wait until the message was loud enough. Must feel fantastic.
I tend not to 'see' my characters visually so much as kind of sense the atmosphere of them.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

Geraldine Ryan said...

Caroline - I have had a similar experience on a couple of occasions in the past. Once, in the Ladies loo at the Royal SHakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, my breath was literally snatched away from me when a young woman emerged from a cubicle and went to wash her hands at one of the sinks, chatting to her friend as she did so. I suddenly knew she *was* "Marsha" my MC of the (sadly unpublished) YA novel I was writing at the time. It was uncanny! I thought I already had in my head how she looked before i "saw" her, but watching her speak and move in the embodiment off the young woman before me made so much more difference to how I wrote her thereafter. Thanks, Caroline, for reminding me of what seemed, at the time, an almost supernatural experience!

Administrator said...

I think it's a dangerous business basing part of a character on someone you know. We've all done it, and some times it works - other times it can make them seem flat.

Sophie Kinsella doesn't describe the appearance of Becky, the MC of the shopoholic books, because she says she wanted each reader to imagine that she was Becky and relate to her, spending up on all those credit cards. It obviously worked on some level if Kinsella's sales (and current film deal!) are anything to go by.

Interesting post!


Gillian McDade said...

A really interesting topic to explore Caroline, and one which gives us all food for thought! One thing I never do though, is base a character on someone I know.

Anonymous said...

That's so interesting, Caroline. I think with me, the clear picture of my charcaters only comes to me gradually, as I write. Like getting to know a real person - they don't appear to you on a first meeting fully formed.

Unlike you, though, the physical attributes of the characters don't come into it for me, even towards the end of the process. By the end of a book I feel as though I've known my characters all my life - but I could almost never tell you if they are tall or short, plimp or slim, dark or fair.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes, those things you didn't know you knew... I had real trouble bringing an important character in The Mathematics of Love to life, partly because she had started as a functionary in the story, as it were: a puppet for a job. And then I suddenly realised that she was skinny, and all elbows, rather clumsy and always dropping things. And from that all sorts of things about her followed, from the fact that she doesn't eat very much, to that she never notices that she's squashed her hat and has paint on her fingers. I still don't know what she really looks like, but she is alive, and has turned out to be quite a lot of people's favourite character.

I actually think that describing appearance at length is rarely effective or useful - it's too often shorthand for characterisation. What's rather spooky is when I haven't described a character's appearance, but readers turn out to have the same image of them in their head as I have - as if it's transmitted at the ultra-violet level of the writing.

Sophie Kinsella's obviously following the Mills & Boon guidelines, because they too say that you shouldn't go into too much detail about the MC, for just the same reason.

Administrator said...

Interesting about M&B. Jilly Cooper is the complete opposite and well known for her vivid descriptions of appearance. Just goes to show both ploys can work as long as the physical appearance isn't all you've got to work with if that's the route you are taking.


Caroline Green said...

Thanks so much, everyone, for these great comments.

The funny thing is, I didn;t feel a need to include his appearance in the story, I needed it for myself. It was more about having a clear picture in my head than feeling I HAD to describe him.

I love your theatre story, Geri! And it's funny that so many of us have had similar experiences. I think the worst thing is where a character's appearance is dropped in really late in the story. By that time, you have your own picture in your head and it's very jarring to be told it's 'wrong'!

Thanks again for your comments, everyone.

Unknown said...

I must admit, I'm quite big on descriptions of appearance. It's very important to me - I always try and see my characters clearly in my mind's eye, and I don't want readers to be imagining someone totally different. I think perhaps I'm a bit controlling!

Glad you "found" your MC, Caroline, and good luck with him...

Caroline Green said...

Thanks, Becky! It's interesting how much people differ on this.