You Need To Love Your Characters, by Lish McBride
I’ve been having a problem recently with the book I’m working on. Let’s call it New Thing. In this New Thing, my main character has a boyfriend. We’ll call him C.J. My editor and agent have both lodged complaints about C.J. He’s flat an boring, and they can’t understand why my main character, Ava, would be with such a person. I agree with them but also point out that all of us at one time date someone like that. You know, that person you date that none of yours friends get why you are dating, and when you break up you also wonder what possessed you to spend time with someone like that? Yeah, it’s like that.
Usually, in those situations, you can argue back to your friends with something. Maybe you liked that he had impeccable table manners. Maybe she was a primo whistler or she tutored you in math. It could even be something embarrassing and shallow, like he was really good looking or she drove a nice car. Whatever. You had a reason for dating them, even if it was a terrible one.
There in lies my problem – my character doesn’t have much of a reason to date C.J. Sure, he’s attractive and he’s normal, which is something my character craves, but they think it’s not enough. Their argument is that she is too smart and even if he were crap, she’d have more justifications for dating him, even if they were flimsy. You know what? They’re right. As it stands, C.J. is pretty lame.
Usually I have no issue filling out my characters. I spend a lot of time on it and I love them and I want that to shine through. That’s the problem. I don’t love C.J. I don’t even like him very much. I kind of want to kick him in the shins, except I don’t care enough to be bothered. This is a problem. You have to love your characters. Even the awful ones: the bad guys, the thugs, the skeezy back-stabbers. There has to be something you enjoy about them, even if it’s how much you like seeing them get their comeuppance.
We all love a good bad guy. What’s Harry Potter without Voldemort? 101 Dalmatians without Cruella DeVille? Sure, Snow White is cool and all but, really, we’re more fascinated with the Evil Queen. We want to know what makes her tick. C.J. isn’t the bad guy. He’s just a normal guy… which is part of the problem. I find normal boring and confusing. I have almost no interest in it and can’t understand why anyone would find it desirable. Normal, to me, is the human equivalent of the color beige. It’s boring and bland, but, hey, it will go with anything.
C.J. will continue to be boring and flat until I find something in him to like. He’s necessary to the story and very necessary to my main character, so I need to make him work. He’s not my dream; he’s hers. Until I can find something worthwhile in him, I’m going to have to keep writing drafts. One crap, flat character can tank a whole book. The whole situation reminds me of a line from a song that I find rather depressing, personally, “If you can’t love the one you want, love the one you’re with.” It’s terrible life advice but good for fiction.
Homework: Look at characters you love (or love to hate). What do you like that they do? Why do you like them? Then take a character you’re having a hard time fleshing out and write out a list of things that you like about them or things that you like that they bring to the story. Sometimes writing a scene just about them helps, even if it won’t make it into the book. Those writing exercises usually show me something surprising in a character and I’ll find myself connecting or sympathizing with them on this new point. I discovered a lot of these moments with my character Douglas in Necromancing the Stone. He’s a big jerk but I truly do feel sorry for him.
Lish McBride’s author website: www.lishmcbride.com
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