You know how to develop characters. They have a past, a desire, a fear, a quirk. They are thrown into the crucible, and they change. They grow.
I know all this, too. I’ve read the how-to’s, and I’ve read the books where authors got it right, and I’ve practiced in my own writing. I’ve completed five novellas and cast several others aside in the middle of a first draft.
I’m about to release my third novella, The Trade. As followers of my blog know, I’ve quit writing fiction, but I decided to publish The Trade because my critique group and beta readers already put in so much work. It seemed silly and ungrateful of me to let it sit in my computer forever. A proof copy is on its way to me now.
And I’m not happy with it.
Yesterday I asked my Facebook friends what they liked to read. My sister mentioned that she liked books that make her laugh or cry—feel something. In that moment I realized what was wrong with my books, and I realized why I had the problem I did. What was wrong was that my characters weren’t real, and the two reasons that they weren’t real are deep, dark secrets. But I’m willing to share my deep, dark secrets because I learned from Oprah that if one person has a deep, dark secret, many others have it, too. Maybe ruminating on my epiphany can pull you out of the cookie-cutter character pit.
Deep Dark Secret Number One
I got scared when people analyzed me based on my characters.
When I finished the first draft of my first attempt at a novel, I let several friends and relatives read it. The main character was, like me, a musician. Her biggest flaw was that she didn’t think she needed to be forgiven for anything. (Side note: This was long before a certain president announced the same.) When my mother-in-law read Ocean Floor, she commented “She’s you, isn’t she.” I was taken aback. Did my mother-in-law think that I thought I was perfect?
I chalked this up to irritating mothers-in-law and wrote on. Much later, I wrote the first few chapters of a book about four friends, one of whom hated that she had to accept charity from the others and had a lazy, lie-about husband. I gave the chapters to my mom, who said “This made me so sad!” She wasn’t sad because my storytelling ability overwhelmed her but because she was sure I felt like the charity-case woman. In addition, my husband (who’s been employed full-time our entire 21 years together) asked if the lazy husband was based on him. I stopped writing that book.
When I wrote Anaheim Tales, the twenty characters were described shallowly by design, but in every other story I wrote, my characters became better-written and less real. My writing didn’t even need a line editor anymore, but no one cared about my characters. Including me. I care about the Jeba I envisioned before I began writing The Trade, but I don’t give a fig about the Jeba who ended up on the page. The Jeba on the page hides her most real parts so that I can hide mine, too. And she hides her most real parts so that I don’t have to hear my family wonder “Does she think that, too?”
In essence, one reason we don’t write real characters is that we’re afraid to.
Deep Dark Secret Number Two
I stopped thinking real was real.
When my dad beta-read Littlefoot Part One, he made the most surprising comment I’ve yet heard from one of my beta readers. He said that he didn’t think the man who ends up with Littlefoot was good enough for her. Usually when my beta readers make a comment, I think, “Yeah, I was afraid of that.” But this time I was floored. This time I was the one analyzing myself based on my characters. Did I not understand human relationships?
I added an endearing sentence about the man and put the book on Kindle.
And maybe I don’t understand human relationships. Around the time I quit writing fiction, I was discovering that people I thought I knew voted for someone indefensible. I was left questioning my judgement about people, aloof, and too pessimistic to write close relationships. I’ve always thought it was irresponsible to depress the hell out of your readers, so I didn’t write anything. No one can ever be understood. Why should a fictional character be understandable then, or even tolerable?
I loved the Jeba who lived before I began typing, but is she even possible? If I faced my fear of being judged by her grittiest inner thoughts and made her more real, would she be real even then?
A second reason we don’t write real characters is that “real” is still not real.
Maybe this is why my roommate in college only read nonfiction. I still cherish the novels I loved in my youth, but my quest to write a novel for someone else to cherish may be over. If your quest for the same isn’t over, I hope that something here knocked your thoughts onto a tangential and helpful track. Keep me posted.