Write It Sideways

Fall Out of Love with Your Main Character

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Susan Bearman

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”  — William Faulkner

There’s debate about whether Faulkner really said “kill your darlings.” And if he did, was he talking about editing out beautiful, but superfluous words; or was he talking about how we treat our characters?

We’re all guilty of falling in love with our own writing. It’s an occupational hazard. Who would want to write about a character you didn’t like, or at least find compelling? Given the amount of time you spend with a main character (MC), it’s important to feel a real connection.

But there is danger in liking your MC too much. Here are some things to keep in mind when trying to create memorable characters.

Perfection is Boring

There’s a little bit of autobiography in everything we write, and it’s human nature to try to revise history to our own advantage. When creating a character, we are recreating some aspect of ourselves and it’s tempting to make that character perfect.

But perfect is boring, and boring is fatal when it comes to a main character. As readers, we are far more likely to identify with the follies and foibles of our favorite characters than with the things they do well. Forget perfection. Turn yourself into an armchair shrink and get your MC to open up about all his secrets. Keep investigating until you find his fatal flaw—that one character trait that will get him into trouble every time.

Good fictional flaws should be more than superficial. They should be genuine and difficult to overcome. Good flaws tend to be more psychological than physical, although they can certainly have physical manifestations.

I’m not much of a gamer, but I was thrilled to discover the Dark World RPG Demonic Renaissance website, which has compiled a great list of character flaws. Bookmark it for future reference, and have fun trolling through this magnificent collection of human frailties.

Up the Ante

Sometimes, our characters are like our children. We want to protect them, or at least let them learn from our mistakes. But just like children, characters need their own experiences to become fully developed. They need to make their own mistakes.

So, take off the training wheels and let your character go. Your job isn’t to make her ride smoother, just to set her on her path. Be her shadow, not her savior.

“Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her all day.” — Ray Bradbury

If you’re not sure what your character wants, try taking something important away from her. Stick an obstacle or two (or ten) in her path and see how she reacts. Let your reader become part of your character’s journey. With each stumble and fall, the reader will become more vested in your MC’s quest.

Look for Universal Truths

The autobiographical aspects of fiction don’t usually represent actual events or people, but rather the feelings we had about those experiences and encounters. One of the great joys of writing (and reading) fiction is that it allows us to go places we’ve never been before. The facts come from research, but the truth comes from feelings, and different life experiences can produce similar emotions.

Your job as a writer is to tap into the feelings you have had in your own life, and recreate them within your story so readers can experience them right along with your characters. This takes practice. Get out your notebook and take a journey back into your own life to re-experience the events that produced the most profound emotions. You’ll probably discover that first experiences are often the most memorable.

Ask yourself how it felt to do something for the first time?

  • to ride a bike or drive a car
  • to go to school
  • to fall in love
  • to leave home (or come back)
  • to see your newborn child
  • to bury a loved one
  • to fail
  • to embarrass yourself
  • to take a risk

Note what you did, but more importantly, note how you felt. For example, let me share some things I remember about the first time I went scuba diving. After a few weeks of training in an indoor pool in Chicago, I did a 90-foot dive in the clear, warm waters off the coast of the British Virgin Islands. The pool experience was nothing like the open-water one. Here are some of the distinct memories of the feelings I had during that dive:

  • weightlessness
  • disorientation, easily losing my sense of up and down, left and right
  • alien in a completely strange environment
  • intrusive; afraid to touch anything
  • hyper-aware of my breathing
  • small, insignificant, and vulnerable
  • agile, able to move freely in all directions
  • part of something bigger and grander
  • alone, even with 9 other divers
  • in a time warp, where time seemed to move more slowly while I was submerged, but to have elapsed more quickly when I resurfaced

I don’t write science fiction, but if I did, I would have a lot to draw on from that event. But those feelings aren’t limited to a fantasy world. There are plenty of everyday experiences when a character could feel some or all of the sensations I felt that day.

One Size Does Not Fit All

No real person is all good or all bad. We each have the capacity for love and hate, generosity and selfishness, maturity and childishness. To be well-rounded and believable, our characters must be equally complex. When cooking up your main character, you want to add more than one flavor into the mix.

Your character may be kind to his clients or coworkers, but a tyrant at home. Your plot may affect they way your character behaves. Stress can bring out the best or worst in anyone—sometimes both. Try different stressors to see how your MC reacts.

Try not to be judgmental. Different personality traits serve us in different ways at different times. Introverts tend to renew themselves by drawing inward and looking for time alone; extroverts will refill their emotional tanks by seeking the company of others or going out into the world. Neither is right or wrong. As a writer, you need to understand what replenishes your character’s reserves and what depletes them.

It’s just as important to flesh out supporting characters. A one-sided villain is not nearly as credible as one who shows complex, even conflicting emotions and behaviors. If a supporting character doesn’t seem to be working, try inventing a backstory so you can understand her motivations. She can still be villainous and make wrong or evil choices, but she won’t seem as flat to your readers.

This doesn’t mean to fill your pages with the minute details of every character’s childhood. It means that you need to understand each character and why they do what they do, so you can make them real in the eyes of your readers. A character chart can help you get to know your character better. There are plenty of examples online, from simple to extremely detailed, or make up one of your own.

Like our children, we don’t love our characters any less when they do something wrong. We love them more, because they are just like the rest of us.