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What Main Characters and Authors Have In Common -- by Tabitha

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?

Posted by Tabitha 22 Jan 2013 at 05:17
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Responses to this blog

Garryg 22 Jan 2013 at 13:34  
Oh, God? Considering some of my main characters, I sincerely hope you are wrong
Fairchild 22 Jan 2013 at 18:43  
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.
That's an interesting trick. I might try it sometime.
Sheridan 22 Jan 2013 at 19:41  
Hi Tabatha,

Thanks for the great article - and the excellent perspective. I think you are spot-on with your theory of why many of us (for sure, me!) seem to find people loving our minor characters and not commenting on the MCs in such a verbose way. I was just thinking about this in relation to my own characters, and I really didn't have an answer for myself.

Maybe it also has something to do with having read Donals Maass' advice in The Fire In Fiction: "Make sure at least one of your minor characters has some unique quirk/trait that makes them interesting so they don't fade into the background and/or just exist as a talking head for the MC to have dialogue with. So, I made sure to follow that advice (which is good) and now my minor's seem stronger than my majors, ha.

I'm definitely going to try your recommendation of jotting notes about the MC's as seen through the minor characters eyes.

Fairchild 22 Jan 2013 at 21:57  
My theory: the MC carries the weight of the story, so I'm very focused on making sure they accomplish everything they need to make the story work, to the point where they are mostly an agent for the story. Whereas minor characters are free to be Characters, going in whatever direction they want, without me worrying too much about their every action and dialogue fully lending itself to moving the story forward. That's why the minor characters are more colorful and organic in my stories than the protagonist, who often feels like a construct.
CasiNerina 23 Jan 2013 at 01:23  
Thank you. This is a great idea.
Cam 24 Jan 2013 at 14:30  
I've never tried writing a journal entry about the main character from the minor characters point of view but I have written journal entries and done various writing exercises from my main character's point of view. That has been a great help to me.

Character interviews are another great way to get a handle on what makes your main character tick. Make sure you ask your character the nitty gritty moral questions that will get to the heart of what he or she must face in your story.
Ruth 24 Jan 2013 at 17:56  
Having the minoe characters tell you how they see the main character is a great idea. I'll have to try that.
Elyssaking 24 Jan 2013 at 18:56  
You know, I read an interesting exercise by Holly Lisle regarding how to 'define' your character...and Tabitha is right on when she says your hero/heroine is always YOU. In Lisle's exercise, she doesn't even mention naming your character as much as knowing him/her. Where they came from/ what was the biggest trauma they've experienced thus far in their life / how old they are / who from their past has impacted them the most / what do they do for fun or hobbies / how do they handle stress / etc. There is a lot to this exercise, and I don't fill out the entire worksheet for all my characters...but it's amazed me how much I've learned about them from simply compiling "their past" and putting it on paper.
I really like the journal idea regarding how a minor character sees the main guy/gal. Think I'll add this to my 'little' (lol) worksheet. Although it seems like drudgery and a lot of work to do these kinds of exercises, what you get in return is a living, breathing PERSON on the page.
Rystalmane 24 Jan 2013 at 18:59  
Love it. This is some great insight and a really neat exercise there at the end to boot. Well done.
Agm 26 Jan 2013 at 02:34  
I don't describe how my minor characters in particular perceive my MC's, but there is a section in my character bios where I write about how people in general perceive them. A lot of my character development methods are derived from John Gerke's Plot Versus Character. I ditch the book when it gets to plot, but it's still extremely useful to me.

I have a bad habit of neglecting minor characters, though.
Pravus 2 Feb 2013 at 20:33  
That's an interesting take on character writing. I'm not sure I agree about main characters having a reflection of the author (it raises a lot of questions about some stories I've read) but I think compelling fiction is about people. How they relate to one another.

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