Okay, so going into this one, I have no idea if this problem is relatable or super unique to me – although the answer, as always, probably lies somewhere in the middle. Either way, it’s one that I run into with honestly embarrassing frequency, so here we go.
(But before we begin, I’m thrilled to be back as a part of the Author Toolbox Blog Hop, and I encourage everyone who’s taking a look at this article to go check out the main page, because the other participants are awesome!)
For me, it’s protagonists. Which is a horrible thing to say, because it feels sort of like a parent saying they just don’t really like their oldest kid. Whether or not it’s true, it’s not supposed to be true, and you certainly shouldn’t admit it.
On the other hand, it’s impossible to address problems if you’re not willing to face them. And it’s not the characters’ fault; I created them. The least I can do for them is to be honest about how I feel.
I love my villains – they’re usually where I start my thinking, so they get the most attention, and if I don’t love them I’ll inevitably just change them out for someone better suited to being my … intellectual property? Following that logic, I’d expect to struggle with secondary and tertiary characters. Since I spend so little time with them, they ought to be harder to appreciate. And yet, secondary and tertiary character generation is one of the real pure joys I get in creative writing. All of my favorite characters that I’ve written have been sidekicks, business partners, foils, love interests.
The protagonists, though … the best I can usually come up with for them is indifference. This goes back as long as I can remember, when I was a six year old writing the story of a princess who goes through a mirror and meets her magic unicorn friend. By the end of it, I knew the unicorn’s favorite color, how many sisters she had (no brothers, there were no male unicorns), what she wanted to be when she grew up. I still remember most of those things, in fact (blue, six, a rainbow) but the princess? I don’t remember what she looked like, what she did, why she was going through a mirror. I do remember that I never managed to figure out a name for her, though.
I think it has a lot to do with how I construct stories.
I like to start with a world. I work in broad strokes, playing around with geography, politics, religion, and interesting magic thingies until I have something that interests me, and then I start narrowing down my focus. Somewhere in that narrowing process, I usually get intrigued by one particular place or group or element, and my brain says “aha, your protagonist should be related to this”.
And so I stop doing the interesting playing around stuff I had been in the middle of, and spend some obligatory time designing a protagonist. And they’re usually fine. They check off most of the boxes of being ‘well-written characters’, or at least well-intentioned ones. They have goals, sort of – it’s hard to have specific goals when the world doesn’t exist yet – and fears, sort of – again, the character can’t know what the author doesn’t know – and flaws, which are actually the easiest thing for me to come up with because you don’t need to know nearly as much about a person’s surroundings to say that they’re impatient, or judge others too harshly, or will cut and run at the first sign of trouble.
So there, I’ve got my protagonist, and now I can go back to playing around in the sandbox of my nascent novel. The character gives me a jumping off point and I start coming up with ideas for their friends and family, their way of life, and from there I can spring out again and come up with neighborhoods and political conflicts and great metaphysical secrets, and somewhere in that process I start to get an idea of who might be causing mischief, and the villain is born.
You might be able to see the problem here; while most pieces of my work are interconnected, evolving and growing in synch with each other, my protagonist is off in their nice little crystal cell, created and perfected free of outside contamination. And so no matter what I do to try to integrate them after, it always ends up feeling kind of forced, like I’m some well-intentioned parent throwing my child at an after school play group who only accept the kid because an adult is watching.
Of course, there are a couple of different ways to go from here. I’ve developed a few strategies that I now successfully employ, and I’ve got some ideas for even better strategies that I’m planning on trying out. But like I said at the beginning, you can only work on something after you’ve acknowledged its existence.
So if you’re having trouble writing a character, take a couple of minutes to ask yourself honestly: ‘do I actually like them?’ The metric for ‘liking’ here will vary widely from author to author, and has very little to do with how nice or likeable the character is. A better question might be, ‘does this character excite me?’
And if you’re anything like me, the first time you stumble onto a character who really just doesn’t do it for you, you’ll try to sneak out of it. “Ehh, I mean, no one likes her, she’s a mean person right now, but she’ll get better once plot events happen to her.” “I wouldn’t want to be his friend, but that’s not the point, he’s got friends, he’s fine.” “There’s nothing wrong with them.”
Those thoughts are a useful warning sign, telling you that a character really isn’t engaging you as a writer. And that’s okay, because (as I’ll go into next month) there are things you can do about that.
Or maybe it’s just me, and I’ll have to figure out a new topic for Spring.
Seriously, does anyone else have this problem?