I Don't Even KNOW My Characters Anymore
We’ve all been there in the early drafts of a novel (and even in the editing process, which comes with all the more trepidation). You’re flipping through the pages— perhaps a scene strikes you as an odd place for your character to be. Perhaps a round of dialogue sounds stiff. All of this is coming from a particular character, this sense of foreboding, so you follow it. You look through each scene this one’s featured in and you keep muttering to yourself, “Now, this doesn’t feel right… why did I put this?”
You begin to realize that you haven’t a clue why. You haven’t a handle on this character at all. You don’t know this character’s motives, intellectual background—if you had to put a face to the poor fellow, it’d a be a blank one. You have a character MIA in the storyline, and it’s messing up the feng shui and all that.
You have no idea what this character’s motive is at all. And it bothers you like an itch.
Don’t panic. Generally, when one says don’t panic, they’re either making a science-fiction reference or are in a situation where panic is applicable, but in this case: honestly. The path to fixing your character with a proper placing will take work— but you, as the author, can do it. And you have to do it.
Developed characters are the pinnacle of a story. If you’ve got a flailing one, the rest of the story flails with it.
Remember that this character isn’t a child— it’s a creation.
Not in the self-coherent, Frankenstein creation either— I mean that without you putting traits into them, they’d be nonexistent. They don’t go through those awkward teenage years or phases unless you write them so. And it’s impossible for you to loose touch with them because you know everything about them. What makes them tick.
No, the issue comes in creating it in the first place. Creating a realistic character is hard because we’re so sensitive to what is and isn’t a human. We notice when something’s flat, or off, or not well-executed as fellow humans who have been born surrounded by the species. And it’s hard, making another person out of words. A lot harder than observing them.
Don’t prattle with those silly character sheets.
oh, I’m going to get hype for this but here we go anyways
Gonna tell you a secret: you don’t need to know what your character’s favorite music is unless he’s either really passionate about it—like that’s one of his major traits— or he’s a musician. Same with his favorite food, or his worst childhood memory. Unless those trivial details somehow aren’t trivial, you don’t need to know them to get to know your character.
Try putting a person you know in a character sheet— fill it out as best as you can for this person and then give it a look. You’ll probably find that this human you’ve described looks flatter when described in a character sheet, and not at all believable. And if this effect happens with an actual person— guess what it does with the fictional characters?
Character sheets are generally a canned way to create a character, and we rely on them a bit too much than we should. It’s more important to know your character’s personality than the exact shade of her eye color— unless you’re writing a Harlequin romance; in which case, hats off to you. The rest of us should focus on personality a bit deeper.
If a character trait mentioned on the sheet is, indeed, important, then I doubt you can describe it well enough in the space provided on a sheet. Copulate it in your head—ingrain it as a part of the character— but don’t fill out a menial character sheet just to put together that he is a dog person or that he doesn’t like radishes.
Keep character sheets in the RPG world. They rarely belong in a writer’s desk.
Find the character’s essence, so to speak.
By this, I mean the important bits from what you think the character sheet will map out. The character’s desires, fatal flaws, driving power— whatever puts them in the place that their place in your plot is vital.
Take that and work it out to the best of your ability. Imagine them as they are in their scenes. For the parts you’re iffy about, think about their involvement and determine what their character would do in this situation, given their record. If it’s different from what you’ve written, change it.
This sounds simple, and I suppose it is simple— but understanding a character’s motives and then writing it perfectly is perhaps one of the hardest parts of creating a story. I’d argue that it’s more difficult than making the plot itself. You’d think that by creating the character you’d have a bit of a pull on their turnout, wouldn’t you? But, as mentioned earlier, we tend to forget this and give them the role of the child that we’ve just lost track of.
Grab them a bit closer. Find their essence. Try not to get too many tears on the pages as you’re re-writing. And keep in mind at all times this character’s personality and how you imagine it relates to the rest of the characters.
If you cannot make the character work, rewrite or delete.
Unfortunately, sometimes a character simply does not work. They might not be right for this storyline, or they might be unnecessary. Maybe another character type works better in their stead. Either tweak them to the point that they’re a comfortable aspect of your storyline, or delete them altogether. Fill in the gap. Replace them, or decide that their character wasn’t necessary in the first place.
This makes for a lot of rewriting, granted, but it is better than keeping a stale character in your plot line. No matter how much you love your character, if you do not know their motives and they feel one-dimensional, you cannot keep them.