Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Insecure Writer and Character Troubles



Today is September's contribution to Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Support Group.


Why am I an Insecure Writer this month? 

Because of my characters.


Some writers need to know their characters inside and out before they begin writing, but that's not how it works for me. I’m a plot-first kind of guy, which means I’d rather tailor my characters to fit the plot then tailor the plot to fit the characters. So my characters start out as blank slates, their personalities and traits slowly coming to me over the course of the story as I learn which attributes would best accentuate the plot.

But even when I have my characters all figured out, I apparently have a problem portraying them. I received feedback from one of my critique partners this past week, and the thing that surprised me most was how much he disliked one of my main characters. Even though I was trying to portray the character as whimsical and funny, my CP thought the character was mean and a little creepy. Yikes!

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time one of my readers has come back with a perception of my character that was completely opposite of what I intended, and it's beginning to worry me. Part of the problem may be that I don't add enough internal thoughts to help guide the reader. Maybe it has to do with my whimsical writing style. Perhaps I just have no clue what I'm doing.

The very first time a CP didn't like my character (many years ago), I was able to fix the problem by changing only a single word. These days, I think it's going to take more work than that.

Has anyone ever misunderstood one of your characters?

ChemistKen

31 comments:

  1. Sure! There were quite a few readers who didn't like the main character in my series. At least not in the first book. (I guess I got better at making him more likable.)
    I tend to have a brief story idea and then work on the characters before fleshing out the plot. There's no wrong way to do it.

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  2. I write somewhat the same way. I have a general idea of my characters, but more details come out as I write.

    When someone says something like that in critique, ask them to cite the spots that bothered them (specific scenes, dialogue, etc.). Maybe that will help you figure out how to fix it.

    IWSG #119 until Alex culls the list again
    (Take THAT, dude--the number stayed the same That's a flat line on your graph. :P)

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  3. Oh yes, my characters definitely develop their personalities on the page (not in my outline, such that it is) and sometimes over the course of several drafts. When I was writing the first draft of The Eighth Day, one of my CPs commented that the MCs guardian, Riley, acted like two different people, often changing his personality mid-chapter.

    I told her that was because he WAS two different people: the character I planned for (and kept insisting on giving him the scenes I'd planned for him) and the character he wanted to be. By the end of the draft, I gave up and let him have his own way. It still took several more drafts to get him completely right.

    It's probably the same thing for your guy. Take a careful look at his scenes, his behavior, his lines of dialogue ... and let HIM tell you how what needs to change.

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  4. Sure. But I think I have a handle on it now. Fingers crossed.

    I read somewhere to: show an action, then the character's instinctual response, a thoughtful response and finally let them speak. I had to force myself to do this for a couple of shorts until it felt more natural. Note: you don't have to do this every time but it will help and you can remove the repetitive parts during revision. :-)

    Anna from Elements of Writing

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  5. I had someone like the bad guy better than the protagonist--too funny and then had to consider whether I had the right character as protagonist, or if I could use it.
    Juneta Writer's Gambit

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  6. I had someone like the bad guy better than the protagonist--too funny and then had to consider whether I had the right character as protagonist, or if I could use it.
    Juneta Writer's Gambit

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  7. Holy crap, yes! I've had people hate my MC, but others like him. I think it's subjective. Some people are going to look at things differently than others. If you know how you actually want your characters to be, just try to make that more clear.

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  8. I'm with you on this, Ken. My stories too are plot-driven with characters second. I do think that makes the job harder because lots of people relate to other people and I've consigned that attraction to a secondary slot. Oh well.

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  9. Every female MC I write comes across as weak and childish the first few drafts. I don't mean them to be that way and I always think they're strong for doing what they need in spite of their fears and insecurities. Sadly others don't see it that way so in final revisions I have to toughen them up.

    Sometimes though you have to get multiple opinions because maybe the person giving you advice isn't your intended audience. That's hard to figure out sometimes.

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  10. Normally, people just don't get a feel for my main characters at all, at least in the first drafts and stuff, which is weird considering I do flesh them out a lot beforehand. I've heard that there's no enough internal dialogue so I've been working on it *sigh*

    - Madilyn Quinn @ NovelBrews

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  11. I start with plot scenario, too, though the "who can live this story" is pretty central. I recently have apparently written a couple "boring" characters, so I get it. We need to infuse them with something the reader can identify with. One trick you may want to play with is to add a character that your MC interacts with that can really point out the traits you want to emphasize.

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  12. YES. Where's your SAVE THE CAT scene? It's fun writing likable villains, but it definitely takes a fine balance.

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  13. Yes! I think that Save the Cat book helps, but I also think the Emotion Thesaurus helps, and I also recently found Emotions in the Wild. However, I would say the biggest problem I have is with two types of characters - ones that I don't personally connect with, and ones that I can't seem to flesh out on the page at all. I have to be very determined to include "show" type details for their emotions if I can't dig into the "inner" thought processes of those kinds of characters. Give one of your characters an action that goes with a specific type of emotion - maybe he bites his lips, or closes his eyes, or can't make eye contact when he's embarrassed/overwhelmed/shy - something that makes the character seem vulnerable may help get rid of the "creepy" vibe. Anyway, that's just one idea.

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  14. Oh yes. I get that a lot, especially since everyone's take on stories is different. I'm a character writer, though. I know my characters first and then let them direct the plot. So I end up having to rewrite plot turns because my characters refuse to change themselves!

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  15. I have the exact same problem. I'm a plotter and I dislike writing (or reading) inner thoughts. I learned a trick called "Save the Cat" from a book by Blake Snyder. It means the first thing you do in the book is show the character saving a person or pet. That creates instant sympathy in the reader. Of course, my CPs still rap my knuckles and make me add more inner thoughts to the ms! lol Try the "Save the Cat" technique and good luck!

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  16. Yeah, I have that problem too. I'm an action kind of girl and all these inner thoughts are something I'd rather steer clear of. But we can't because they do have their purpose (so it would seem). As Lexa just said, the Save the Cat has been recommend to me several times, and then one's suppose to show several meaningful inner moments during the story too. *sigh* Guess heroes have to sit down and be warm and fuzzy sometimes too. ;)

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  17. Yeah, I have that problem too. I'm an action kind of girl and all these inner thoughts are something I'd rather steer clear of. But we can't because they do have their purpose (so it would seem). As Lexa just said, the Save the Cat has been recommend to me several times, and then one's suppose to show several meaningful inner moments during the story too. *sigh* Guess heroes have to sit down and be warm and fuzzy sometimes too. ;)

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  18. Now that I think about it, I do the same thing too. I plot out the story and the character evolves with it. It's like with Hurricane Crimes. I had no idea Beth would be a self-defense instructor until Donovan became a suspected murderer. :P

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  19. Isn't is amazing how differently our minds process the written word? What one sees as humorous or witty another reads as creepy. What you've written just points out how subjective this writing business really is. Hope you figured out how to deal with that reader's take on your character.

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  20. Maybe some internal thoughts help. Or perhaps you need a bit of set up at the beginning and a Save the Cat moment. Two of my crit partners don't like if I write a broken, weak character to start. The intention is they grow by the end, but those two CPs don't want to give the character a chance. Ever. I ignore them, but look for a bigger STC moment for those characters. Others respond to those characters. It is all so subjective. In the end, you're the captain. It's your call.

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  21. All of these comments about Save the Cat have caused me to forget what I was going to reply! I obviously need to read that book.
    But I really do agree with others that in the end it's your call and all of this is so subjective. You need to stick with your gut if it's telling you your characters are right for your story.

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  22. I've shaped characters around the plot and I've had the characters shape the plot from the start. The latter is far easier, but sometimes the story just doesn't evolve that way. While CPs can be super helpful, opening our eyes to how what we've written may be interpretted differently, I wouldn't worry too much about what one CP says. It becomes a concern when more than one says the same thing, though.

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  23. Yeah, I've had characters misunderstood but it's usually because I did something wrong with them. Like I changed some part of their background or motivation but it didn't make it through the whole draft and so the character was left confused and out of sorts. Or interpreted completely wrong due to conflicting descriptions.

    Like other have said, if someone find something funny in your story try to have them pinpoint exactly where it went wrong. It will help you find the mistakes and trace back to the source.

    IWSG September Post

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  24. Yes, I have CP's misunderstanding and utterly hating a character of mine before. She was the main character, too. I don't know what happened, but I found not taking too big of chances with important characters helps keep readers from feeling bad about them. Maybe you do the opposite, playing it too safe, and it has the same effect? Finding the happy medium for your characters' personalities makes them come off the best for the most people.

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  25. Oh of course, I thought it was because I knew them so well, I wasn't conveying enough, and you're right about letting them in on the inner thoughts, that's part of the key!

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  26. This definitely happened to me to. But I didn't change the character. I just turned his crazy sayings down a notch. The most important part is that you should be happy with the characters. If you intend for your character to have lots of attitude and spunk, then go for it. If that was not your intention, then you can listen to your critique partners. Best of luck.

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  27. I've had a CP misunderstand one of my characters. She had a point, so I worked on softening him up a little and adding more internal thought. The hardest thing is not adding too much. Sometimes I even misunderstand my characters and realize I'm not writing them the way they should be written. It can all be fixed--or you can threaten to scrap that character and get him/her in line. :)

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  28. I don't think you're alone in this. I think every writer has probably had a reader misunderstand one of their characters. And sometimes it's hard for us as the author to see where the characterization needs work. I had an editor tell me once that my characterization didn't hold up. It wasn't until she pointed it out that I went through my MS and realized that, yeah, she was right! Then I was able to make changes and hopefully strengthen my MS.

    But I do think you're right. Sometimes adding that internal dialogue helps to flesh out your character and show that he/she isn't so weird/creepy after all! Good luck!!

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  29. This is my third attempt....Trust your gut. It's your story.

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  30. I've had characters come across to a reader in a different way. Sometimes I can see what they mean and sometimes not ... I have used their advice but in a way that still made sense to me as the original writer. I usually find the characters tell me what they want to do and say (if that makes sense!).

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  31. I had one CP tell me she liked my bully character more than the MC. I had him do too many funny things, I guess. His words sure weren't likable. As for your character, it must be time to send me that one. I need some diversion until my surgery.

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