A week or two ago, I decided to focus on finishing the first complete draft of the book* instead of going back and strengthening the main character. I’m trying like hell to stick to that approach, however, I’m still trying to work out the main character as I do. As he’s present in these chapters, it’s pretty much unavoidable anyhow. Plus, it gives me the opportunity to put that character though different scenarios and see what works and what doesn’t. After all, I do have an idea about how I want to revise him, even if it isn’t the current focus of my energy.
With that in mind, I’m asking myself “How does one write a compelling character?” My book does have a few fairly well done characters, so I’m pretty sure my problem isn’t that I’m terrible at writing good characters. On the whole, I think I’m doing pretty well on that score. It’s more a question of why one character is not done well, but another is.
One thing about the main character I’m struggling with is how he changes through the book. How should he grow? What is the change he undergoes? As a writer who is still really trying to master the craft, this is a pretty daunting pair of questions. Lacking the skill and experience to tackle these, I simply omitted certain personality details and worked to bring those out in later chapters. It’s not that I realized this is what was happening, if I had, I wouldn’t have done it that way. It’s only upon reflection that I’m able to see I was attempting to use omission of personality as a proxy for real change. Now, it’s not that my problem isn’t fixable, it’s just a matter of understanding what the change ought to be. The main character starts out the book avoiding his innate magical skill. By the end, he has managed to learn how to harness some of the most powerful aspects of this magic. There’s the change. I can make it big, and it’s pretty straight forward.
Another problem I had with the main character is that I started out the concept with two characters, friends and war-buddies. One of them I imagined as a free-wheeling, drinking and womanizing ruffian. The other, was more of a buttoned-up noble-born stiff. Early on in the project, I made a major change to the back-story. I gave the noble-born the ruffian’s back story and made it the beginning of the book. This was actually a break-through change for the story as a whole. It gave the thing a starting point and some conflict to ignite the larger fight. However, I made a mistake, which was that when I dropped that back-story on to the noble-born, the personality traits associated with the original character had to go with. Since I chose not to do that, I ended up with a mis-matched and incomplete personality coming through on the page.
To take this discussion further, I hit the books to see what might be learned there. I’m not talking about books on writing or writing characters, I’m talking about other fiction I’ve read and what struck me as being a particularly good example of characterization. There are a number of good examples, but my first thought was Dune. It was a book where I was blown away at how strong virtually every character was, from the very moment they walked into the scene. A good case example is Dr. Yueh. Over the course of six pages, Frank Herbert manages to introduce and draw Yueh as a tormented and unwilling participant in the Baron’s plans to utterly destroy the Atreides. What’s super interesting about this approach is that Herbert basically tells the reader what’s coming. Yueh is cursing himself for what’s coming, without directly or explicitly saying what that is. The Doctor acts and thinks in terms of the context he’s in without holding back. Nothing is muted to protect that bit of information from the reader until the writer is ready to spring it on them. Now, this is the important point. Because Herbert is not trying to hide what Yueh is up to from the reader, it allows him to more completely draw the character, highlight his anguish at being thrust into this situation.
The takeaway in this? When it comes to characters, don’t hold back.
For my situation, I think the solution is to make the main character’s evolution much more targeted, focused on the magic. He is not an uncertain person, and should not read that way. I know the context and history and so it shouldn’t be a horribly difficult task to write the character using that context as a framework. Just like the Dr. Yueh example, this will give a much more natural feel to those situations where the character reacts in a particular way, which is explained by his back story, but isn’t quite known by the reader.
* I have to call it a book now because it’s so close to being a full draft, I couldn’t rightly call it a story. Besides, I’m planning at least two more after, and in my mind, that’s the ‘story’.