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Friday, March 27, 2009

Characterization Conundrum

A few days ago, I was talking with one of my CPs about entering one of my books in the Genesis. I asked if she thought it would do well. She paused. A loooooooong time. And then she said, "well, if you fixed your first chapter, then I think you'd do fine."

Insert kick to the gut. Let's be clear here. I love and respect her a lot. But I've been at this writing thing for a long time, so it's frustrating to get this sort of feedback. Especially because most people who read my stuff think it's perfectly fine, don't know why I haven't sold, yada yada yada.

I've been mulling her opinion and asking myself, "what can I do better?" I read a few books to see what they had that mine don't. And I came away really depressed. All the stuff that's supposedly missing from mine? Also missing from the published books I've read lately.

So what is wrong with my writing?

I have tons of writing books, so I thought I should probably go back to those to see what I'm missing. To see what I can do to ramp it up and get it that much closer to catching a publisher's eye. I picked up Writing the Breakout Novel and corresponding workbook by Donald Maas.

At chapter one, I found my problem. Here are the questions and my answers:

1. Who are your personal heroes? Write down the name of one.
Um, I don't have any. There's no one I really look up to and think, "I want to be like him or her."

2. What makes the person a hero or heroine to you? What is his or her greatest heroic quality? Write that down.
Again, drawing a blank.

3. What was the moment in time in which you first became aware of that this quality in your hero/heroine?
Um, yeah. Stupid question. See above.

4. Assign that quality to your protagonist. Find a way for he or she actively to demonstrate that quality, even in a small way, in his or her first scene.
Crap. Is this why I don't write good characters? Am I such a negative Nellie that my inability to make people into heroes is translating into sucky writing?

Okay fine. So let me analyze why I don't have heroes... My questions and my answers:

1. Why don't you have heroes?
Because to have a hero is to risk putting them on a pedestal, which is unhealthy for them and you. You can never be that person, and that person can never live up to your expectations. Plus, because every person is flawed, if you build up that person too much, they will inevitably let you down.

2. Let's go with that letting you down thing... what's with that?
I generally have too high of expectations of people and when I encounter the reality of who they are, I find myself disappointed.

3. Can you give an example?
I used to go to church with this person, we'll say the name is Bob, and I very much admired him for his knowledge and depth of Bible study. He appeared to have a great relationship with God. I admired that. However, for whatever reason (was never shared with me), Bob did not like me and was very cold, rude, and demeaning to me when we spoke. I wondered how such an admired man of God could make me feel so small and seem to feel good about it.

4. How do you think this translates into your writing?
Even though I try to write positive, uplifting things, I wonder if my distrust of people sneaks in. Because I don't really believe what I'm writing about people, rather it's what I want to believe, it probably comes across as fake. Conversely, when I write things that are more true to how I view people, it tends to be too dark and people end up hating the characters. This people hating my characters issue is one I've struggled with for a long time. The very things people hate about my characters are, in fact, the very truest pieces of me.

I admit, I've struggled with this one from day one. Years ago, a CP picked apart a character and told me exactly why she wanted to kill her. All things that I'd snatched up from my own life. I cried for days. I still mourn that story. Oh, I accept that there were a lot of flaws in the writing, and yes, if I am to be completely honest, it's probably not publishable quality.

5. So, because we hate it when you cry in your Wheaties, how can you use this knowledge to make your characters better?
Personally, I think most people overglorify their characters by not making them flawed enough. If I read one more sickeningly sappy sally church girl, I am going to do something really really bad. That said, no one is completely evil. I do have friends and I do like them. They have qualities I like, but I also know that they have bad qualities. The qualities I like are greater than the bad qualities. I just try not to put them on pedestals because that's usually where I get burned. With my characters, because I try so hard to show the flaws to avoid the overly happy character that makes me want to hurl, I need to spend more time showing the positive qualities. Rather than asking, "why is this person a hero," I think I need to ask, why is this person my friend?

Maybe, if I change the semantics of the question, I might be able to come up with more satisfying answers. And hopefully, more satisfying characters.

Anyone else want to take a stab at the questions?


Megan DiMaria said...

Thoughtful, honest post, Danica.

What if you changed the "hero" term to "someone you admire? Would that help you with the concept?

Unknown said...

My heroes are those people who are faced with situations that should beat them down (and do for many others) but somehow they just keep putting one foot in front of the other. People who have bad days/weeks/months, but pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and go at it again. Quiet heroes like this surround us and they're the ones that inspire me. Maybe pick heroic qualities you admire from different people and then combine them into your character - but not all of them at the beginning. Help your character develop and grow into that. Most of us don't automatically have great faith, for example, we learn and earn it. Help your readers vicariously become what you would like to be with your characters who become that way, too.

And, of course, this comes from a not-quite-yet published (in fiction) author, so take it for what it's worth. =)

Danica Favorite said...

Good suggestions!

Jaime, I admire people for those reasons as well.

I guess my issue really is the term "hero." Hmmm....

kalea_kane said...

I just totally admire the direction you took yourself, Danica. Wonderful job. I also really liked Megan and Jaime's ideas. I wish you the best!


Kay Day said...

My hero is Corrie ten Boom. She was imperfect, but she gave up everything for the sake of others and modeled forgiveness.

But I tend to not look up to a lot of people, either. I do admire certain qualities, though.