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I’ve always been a plot-writer. When I get ideas, it’s almost always in the form of some incident or object, and then the character appears later. As a result, they were never as fleshed out as they should have been. I used to read that way, too, not caring so much for the characters as long as something exciting was happening. But I’ve grown to appreciate a robust, realistic character in the past few years, and that has extended to my writing.
However (and that’s a BIG however), that doesn’t mean I had an epiphany and could suddenly write these amazing characters. It just means I knew I needed to write them, so I set out to figure out how. And I discovered that I was far better at writing minor characters than main characters. It seems completely backwards, and it’s taken a long time to figure out why that is. But I think I’ve finally clued in to something…
I think most main characters are a huge reflection of the author. Yes, all the characters come from the author, and the minor characters might have fewer shared traits, but there are shared traits. The main character might not even share many traits with the author, but I think there is one thing that’s almost always in common: how they see the world.
I’ve always been the wallflower—on the outside looking in, watching people and seeing how they work, what makes them tick, how their paths will lead to either success or disaster, etc. I’ve always been too shy to be part of a group, so I observed instead. And, let me tell you, you can get some pretty deep insights into people when you spend so much time doing this. I feel that I understand people pretty well, and I can translate that understanding into subtle body language or tone of voice in my minor characters.
But what about the main character? Unless the story is being told in third person omniscient, there is no one observing him. We are in his head and can hear his innermost thoughts, fears, biases, etc, on an intimate level. But is that enough? Well, as I’m discovering, it isn’t.
Which brings us back to how the author and main character see the world. As I said before, I think I see people pretty well, but I don’t have a clue how they see me. They could see my shyness as a quiet sophistication, or they could think I’m snobby. I have no idea. And this is how my main characters see the world, too. They see others clearly, but they don’t have the first inkling how the world sees them. Depending on the story, that could still work. BUT, the author should know how the world sees them because it impacts the story, even on the tiniest level. And sometimes that tiny bit is what brings a book from good to great.
In order to compensate for this, I’ve created a set of exercises to add to my character worksheets. I take all the minor characters (who have significant roles in the story) and write a journal entry, from their perspective, about what they think of the main character. Some really interesting things have come out of this, and it allowed me to add a bit more depth to my main character.
Have you ever done anything like this? How does your main character see the world, and how to you compensate for his/her shortcomings?