Monday, August 2, 2010

In Search of Character

In college, I acted in a production of Luigi Piradello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. I played the Child, the youngest member of a rather disturbed family searching for an end to their story and hoping to find it within a certain theater company. While I had no lines--the Child is mute--others in the family had plenty to say, especially about character development. They complain that the actors don't look like them and get the story wrong. When the Manager refuses to allow the Stepdaughter to tell the story of her affair with the Father, she is enraged. Her story can’t be told without it. In the final tragic act, the characters moan that the actors cannot possibly recreate the proper emotion.

As I work on my second draft of my YA WIP, my characters are as insistent as Pirandello’s that I listen to them and get it right.

My first drafts are very heavy on dialogue and not so much on inner thoughts and real character development. When working on first drafts, I try to stifle that inner editor and just get it down. I chop away in my second draft, losing more than fifty percent of what I originally wrote. I lose even more in later drafts.

But what I add in second drafts is character development. I look for places to let my MC think and feel. To give voice to what is deep within him. I’m not too focused on my secondary characters yet, but I find that in deepening my MC, I find additional motivation for those around him. Once I feel a true emotional connection to my MC, the rest of the work flows much more easily.

Right now, my MC still asks me for more. To dig deeper. To get down to the raw, real feelings he bottled up a long time ago. And unlike the six characters in Pirandello’s play, I hope my characters will be satisfied with their conclusions.

Characters become so real for the writers creating them. Have you ever, like Pirandello’s Manager, felt the truth was too powerful for your story? Particularly in writing for children and teens, have you ever felt the need to tone it down?


  1. Yes. On one hand, I do accept that there are themes that aren't right for MG, say, but on the other, I do wonder about the kids who have lived through certain kinds of trauma or difficulties and might hope to find characters in books who have gone through similar experiences. I can't help but feel that writers are doing them a disservice by refusing to address those themes.

    My first drafts are terribly short on personal reflection. I wonder if it's because I'm quite anxious to describe what my characters are feeling, but fear I'll overdo it. As I try to restrain myself from putting in too much inner thought, I err by doing the very opposite.

  2. Mary, I think we can be way to hard on ourselves as we draft each novel. It helps to think of a first draft as ten-percent done.

  3. J.A. How appropriate! I've been working on my critical thesis for VCFA this last week and part of what I am examining is how writers make bad guys/antagonists interesting and likable.

    It's all about layering and building believable characters. And that has to come with revision, rewriting, and re-envisioning. It's all part of the process.

  4. Ah, Meg! If we could always remember it's part of the process!

  5. I'm guilty of not wanting bad things to happen for my characters, especially for the first draft. But it's during those "bad moments" that true character can come out. I know my first attempt at a novel, which is sitting on my shelf collecting dust - could be much darker. Maybe that's why it's sitting on my shelf!

    I'm not sure there's any taboo topic for YA these days, but I know I personally can't stand books that shock just for the sake of being shocking. If a tough subject is organic to the plot, so be it, but if it's thrown in there to make is a spicy gets tired real quick.

  6. Robin, I totally agree. But when difficult subjects are handled well -- well, there is nothing like it. It is so emotionally satisfying.

    I just finished Katheryn Erskine's MOCKINGBIRD. It's a middle grade that deals with school shootings and a MC with Asperger's Syndrome. It's a terrific book that handles both big and small problems with humor and gut-wrenching truth. I highly recommend it.

  7. I went to a conference and an agent on the agent's panel said she was looking for manuscripts where the protagonist dies.

    Plenty of attendees laughed when she said this, btw. But to me, that ranks right up there with being as powerful as you can get, especially when writing for MG readers.

    Great post, J.A.

  8. J.A., Chris Crutcher's DEADLINE would fit that description. I was a great big puddle when I finished that book.