Every two weeks my poetry group meets at a Barnes & Noble café. We drink tea and critique poems and gossip, then we go into the shelves to buy books. I look forward to this part of our meeting with both excitement and dread. Excitement that I will finally find a book that makes my heart beat faster, that promises to cast a spell over me (dark or light, I don't care); dread because I don't usually find that book, so I might be disappointed again. What usually happens? Most of the time I have to settle, because it's better to leave with a book than no book at all. Too painful!
But it's also painful when I get home and start reading and find that this isn't the one either. And after a few chapters, it goes into the donation pile. I have several of these piles.
I'm not hard to please. Most people are like me, they want to see a character they identify and sympathize with placed into a situation where life as they know it is changed. It can be in our world or another planet or another time; it can be a small or large shift, but we want to see the character's world opened up into possibilities we don't have, would never accept if handed to us, or had and messed up, and so lost forever. We ask a lot: shock, awe, amazement, excitement, and more. But it is doable! The trick is, the character should rise to the top rather than be dragged/carried along by setting or plot, atmosphere, or symbolism, however seductive these are to write. And they are!
How to do this? It's pretty simple but I see people forget these basics all the time:
1) You must have a good handle on your main character.
2) Your main character must want something.
3) Your main character must do something.
#1: Before you do anything, write a biography or sketch of your character. Get to know them. Ask them flat out what they want. What are they afraid of? What bad choices have they made? What do they love about their life? Who do they carry a grudge against? What are their regrets? What are their weaknesses and quirks? (This one is key). You don't have to write pages. One sentence for each will do. And it's fine to also discover who they are along the way, as you write, that should definitely happen and it's really exciting as you make those discoveries, but you need to dive in and get to know them first. I guarantee you that what you write by doing this will morph into actual writing and you'll keep a lot of it. For me, personally, this is the coolest part of writing a book—meeting my character and figuring him or her out so I can get started.
#2: Your character must be driven by a desire for something. A desire so strong that he/she is propelled out of life as they know it, is willing to make mistakes, take chances, maybe give up everything. Letting the reader know what that desire is and why is important, but too much explanation and back story just flat out kills everything. Action and dialogue are much better ways to fill us in. When you're tortured by emotions or a situation or, you might feel, a person, do you just lie around thinking for hours (ie, pages?). No—you do something. It may be destructive, like getting drunk (action), or positive, like speaking with a friend (dialogue). Face the facts of your character as well. Check in and ask: are we rooting for this protagonist?
Who they are and what they want can also be conveyed by their physical presence. Can we see them? Too often there is too little description of a character or, if it is given somewhere near the beginning, we never "see" them again. Make them real to us. Remind us of their eye color, their hair, their habitual gestures, their clothes, their walk, how they eat, how they touch someone, their feelings—emotional and physical. Note when they make changes to any of these, inadvertently or on purpose. Please, though, for everyone's sake, skip the mirror trick, okay? The one where the character passes a mirror and pauses to take themselves in. This isn't how they should be introduced.
#3: A character who wanders around reacting to what happens to him/her is excruciatingly passive and we all want to kill him/her for being so. And you for wasting our time. We are not that much of a victim in our own lives. We might wallow or flounder a little, but there were choices made that got us into the bad, and choices to be made to get out of it, however long it might take. What you'll hear from your readers in this case is "Nothing happens." Which means: "Boring." Which means "Bad writing." Ouch.
The character has to drive the action. The character should be moving through time and space gathering allies or making enemies, encountering conflicts, obstacles, crises, roadblocks, both inner and outer. Making spectacularly bad judgments and having lucky moments. In a compelling story, he/she either overcomes or succumbs to these obstacles. But they don't lie down and take it!
If they do, then they get what they deserve and we don't care. We might continue reading to revel in their demise-sometimes I keep reading a book I hate so I can enjoy hating it—it's kind of fun if that's my only option.
Every story has a place where the character can't turn back. The stakes have to rise. That place is magical because it's an altered place—could be altered consciousness rather than literally altered/magical. And what the character does then is what we are reading for. It's our cathartic moment. But you need to earn it as a writer and your character needs to earn it as a character.
As you write, stop and take stock. Are you getting caught up in your lyricism, your imagery, your descriptive passages, or the action itself? Even during the points of the story/book where stuff is happening—sex, violence, confession, travel, childbirth, whatever, the choices you make for the character should reflect and be informed by what they want and how this action is either moving them closer or further away from it. Every chapter should have movement on the character front.
We all get carried away during the writing process, and I'm not discouraging that; it's crucial to the book/story feeling alive, but you need to be writer enough to go back and edit out what doesn't actively serve the character, his/her goals, and the goals of the book. Hopefully, you have a critique group of writers you respect who will be straight with you about this. We write our way to the good parts, much of the time (though these magical writing moments do descend on us from time to time), and then need to erase either some or all of how we got there.
It takes character! Pun intended.
Christine Stewart is program director for arts in education, literary arts, and children's events with the Maryland State Arts Council and director of Maryland's Poetry Out Loud program. A former artist-in-residence with Creative Alliance in Baltimore, she is the founding director of the wildly successful Write Here, Write Now workshops, and editor of the first anthology from the program, Freshly Squeezed, published by Apprentice House Press at Loyola College. She has a M.A. and M.F.A. in creative writing and poetry, is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and has been published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Blackbird, The Cortland Review, and other literary magazines. Check out her Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ChrisStewartTheRealWriter.