About 7 years ago, I was stuck in a writing rut and began leafing through old projects of mine. I had a handful of complete manuscripts, but most had been discarded halfway through the writing process. There was something wrong about them—all of them. Something I couldn’t put my finger on for awhile. And then one day, I saw it clearly:
I was my main character.
In every one.
She might not look like me, but she thought like me, talked like me, and got herself into the same kinds of scrapes I did.
The problem with my books was me.
So I opened a blank document on my computer and tried something new.
I’d always been a quiet, behind-the-scenes kind of teenager, so I made my new main character the center of attention. I was a goody-goody, so she was a bad girl. I was raised in a stable home, so her home life was tumultuous. My looks were ordinary, so she was exotic. I was passive aggressive, so she sought out conflict.
I named her Skylar and wrestled her onto the page.
Writing Skylar was freeing. Being in her skin felt like living in a fantasy world. She said things I wanted to say to people but never did. She took chances I was scared to, and yet she was afraid of things that felt ordinary to me.
I submitted the manuscript to a contest. The story felt bigger than anything I’d ever written, and surely the judges would be able to tell. I knew I was guaranteed to final.
So when the list came out, I was flummoxed as to why my name wasn’t on it. Clearly I’d been given a raw deal. My judges must have been having bad days when they read my manuscript. How could they not appreciate Skylar?
But that was the one thing all three judges agreed on—Skylar was annoying. They were not only indifferent to her problems, they felt she deserved them.
For awhile I resisted dealing with the judges’ comments. Then I forced myself to sit down with my contest entry and read with fresh eyes. That’s when I realized I didn’t like Skylar either. I agreed with those judges. Skylar was rude, self-centered, and had her priorities all backward. She did deserve her problems.
After deciding the judges weren’t complete morons, I changed my opening scene. In my original manuscript, we met Skylar in her element. She was snarky and completely in-control. And completely unlikeable. I reworked it so our first glimpse of Skylar comes the morning after the worst night of her life. For the first time ever, she’s vulnerable and unsure of herself. She knows she needs to make changes, but she doesn’t know how, and there’s no one in her life to mentor her the way she needs to be mentored.
While making Skylar different from me broke me out of a writing rut, I had to find something for us to have in common—an emotion, a circumstance. How could I expect a reader to love and root for her when I didn’t?
It took four years and three drastically different drafts before Me, Just Different was polished enough to sell. Fortunately those years not only produced a sellable manuscript, but lessons for building main characters:
1.Your mom is right—it’s what’s on the inside that counts
Even though I crafted my story in first person, I somehow managed to leave out Skylar’s feelings. We knew every detail about her outfit that day, but we had no idea how she felt about the conversation she’d just had. If a scene is reading flat to you, look to see if you only developed the external story and not the internal. To your reader, your character’s thought life matters far more than his or her eye color.
2.Challenge their world view
The first couple times I wrote Me, Just Different, I made it clear that Skylar was exotically beautiful. It didn’t occur to me that Skylar might not view herself this way. Or, if she did, that it might affect her relationships with others. Basically, I’d forgotten to give Skylar a world view. And the story grew far more interesting when I developed Skylar’s perception of her looks rather than making it as simple as saying she was beautiful.
We all view the world differently, and your characters should too. It’s when their world views clash that you get some of the best conflict.
3.Where’s the motivation?
My original idea of Skylar was that she felt superior to everyone around her, and I left it at that. It wasn’t until later that I realized her frame of mind begged me to answer the question, what had happened in Skylar’s life that left her feeling like she could behave the way she did?
Maybe your main character can’t forgive him or herself for something. Why? Maybe your main character is a womanizer. Why? Don’t just say a character is this or that. Give them a reason, and you’ll develop a rich back story.
The four years I invested in Skylar have paid off. When I receive e-mails from readers, almost all say how Skylar spoke to them. Some have even said they feel they “are Skylar.” How grateful I am to those judges who didn’t let me settle for a sub-par character. Thanks to them, I was forced to dig until I’d crafted a character of complexity. One the reader can love in spite of her flaws. One that lives and breathes apart from me.