Friday, March 12, 2010

Make Your Characters Real

“When an epiphany solves a mystery or problem, especially the central problem of the story, it is especially important that the road to enlightenment is fraught with suffering.” --Jessica Page Morrell in {Between the Lines}.

Beginning writers, me included, are too nice to their characters. If a problem is solved too easily, readers won’t care. They want to see a character struggle to achieve a goal, just like they do.

At one time, I belonged to an online writing group and critiqued a few novels, most of them by beginning writers. I remember one in particular. It was a western in which a small group traveled across the country in hopes of finding something better. I read/critiqued five or six chapters and stopped. Why? It was boring! Nothing bad happened to the characters, and everybody got along. When was the last time you had that happen? Oh, one person was taken by the Indians for raping a woman. Okay, I thought, here’s a spot for some tension; but there wasn’t any. The settlers let it happen without a fight. In another scene, three men rode off to investigate a plateau area. Aha! Will there be trouble over the horizon? Will their lives be at stake? Well, they rode to a rise, looked around, and returned to the wagon train without incident. {yawn} This wasn’t a story. It was a travelog--and not a very good one.

I provided some polite comments in an effort to get the author to spice up the action. The tact didn’t work. Finally, I told him the story was boring, because his characters were. They weren’t real people with disagreements and fights and sins. I hadn’t been writing long at the time, but even I knew the book would never be published.

Characters need to struggle, have warts, and be worse off than most for readers to care. Period. So go out there and beat up on your characters, refuse to let them fall in love, and do to them whatever it is you never want to happen to yourself.

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