Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: How to Deal With a Character Taking Over Your Book

We're on a bit of a sudden enforced vacation here at Casa de Aaron Bach. We didn't realize summer camp was closed the entire week of July 4, so it's suddenly "madly run around North Georgia doing outdoorsy stuff with our son!" time. Because of the interruptions, today's Writing Wednesday is going to be a little different.

Every November for the last four years, I've done an AMA with writers over at the NaNoWriMo fantasy forums. These posts are super fun and one of the highlights of my year. The question format gives me a chance to write out a lot of my writing processes and strategies, some of which I didn't even think about until someone asked me. The result is a ton of information that I'm very proud of, but, due to the inherent nature of forum replies, can be pretty hard to read.

So today, in the spirit of posting something interesting while also not abandoning my husband for too long to the whims of a bored 5-year-old (THANKS TRAVIS!), here's one of my favorite question/answer pairs from the thread, conveniently extracted and cleaned up for your reading pleasure.

I promise we'll be back to the new stuff next Wednesday. For now, though, let's talk character wrangling!

Writing Wednesdays: How to Deal With a Character Taking Over Your Book

Emma Rowene asks:
My main character shares some of Eli's personality traits, I think. He's charming, skilled, facetious...but I'm finding that I'm having some trouble pulling it off. He's sort of overshadowing the other characters (who I think are also pretty great) and is coming across as not as deep a character as he should be because of some of these personality traits. So I guess my question is: do you have any advice? How did you go about writing Eli?

Rachel Aaron:
I had the exact same problem when I was writing Eli! When you've got one character with a super strong personality, especially he's a voice you love and find really fun to write, it's all too easy to end up with that character dominating every scene he's in. And while that's not technically bad (assuming he's your main character), it can make your book very one note by stealing everyone else's page time.

Personally, I solved this problem by increasing Eli's character flaws. Eli's cockiness, checkered past, and inability to keep his mouth shut got him into a lot of trouble, which gave the other characters a chance to shine by saving his butt/yelling at him/coming up with their own plans. 2) I made sure that all my other major characters had interesting and important story lines of their own (Nico and her demon, Josef and his sword, Miranda and her spirits, etc). So long as your people have goals they're actively pursuing and which are complicating the plot away from your MC, it's much easier for them to make their voices heard. And finally, 3) I made sure to shift the POV away from Eli for large sections of the text. This allowed me to tell other parts of the story Eli and Co. couldn't know about as well as giving me opportunities to show the action from alternate, non-Eli points of view, even if Eli himself was in the scene.

This final division paid off two fold. First, because watching from another character's POV was often actually more interesting than being in Eli's head since they didn't know what Eli was going to do. And second, because it gave me lots of chances to develop the POV characters independently while still telling Eli's story. I used this trick especially to develop characters who wouldn't otherwise talk a lot, but had very definite opinions, like Josef (stoic swordsman) and Nico (quiet, introverted demonseed).

Now, this was just how I solved my "Eli keeps taking up all the air" conundrum. I'm sure there are infinite other ways to do this exact same thing (that's the great thing about writing, there's always more than one way to fix a problem!). Still, I hope they'll give you a kicking off point to try and fix the same issue in your book.

That said, I do want to address the concern you bring up about shallowness. When you're writing a charming, skilled, charismatic character, making sure your reader doesn't think they're shallow is a huge issue. We tend to think these people are shallow IRL, so you're already writing up hill when you pick this kind of personality as your main character. The trick is to make sure your character has serious problems and showcasing those in way that makes an otherwise overpowered, charismatic character seem deeply sympathetic. Eli might have been charming, handsome, and seemingly care free, but it was clear by the middle of book one that his take-nothing-seriously attitude was just a cover up for some extremely deep and messed up issues.

Readers love this stuff. They love getting to feel like they're on the inside of a character no one else really knows. So don't be afraid to reveal your character's demons early and often, especially if that character might come across as Too Good To Be True otherwise. If you can pull that off properly, you'll end up with a charming but wounded character people will love and root for instead of just another smug bastard.

I really hope that helps! Sorry to go on so long. As you see, you asked me a question very near and dear to my heart. I hope my experience helps make your writing easier, and best of luck on your book! It sounds awesome to me, but then, I might have a very soft spot for charming rogues.

I hope you enjoyed this blast from November Past! I'll be doing NaNo again this year, so I hope you'll drop by and ask a question! If this post wasn't enough to whet your writing whistle, click here (or in the "Writing" label below) to see 7 years worth of Rachel writing posts! (No promises about the ones at the beginning, though. ;) )

Thank you as always for reading, and happy writing!



Veronica Sicoe said...

"Readers love this stuff. They love getting to feel like they're on the inside of a character no one else really knows."

Excellent advice. It works for very nasty characters as well, antagonists (but not only, nuissance characters sometimes too), where showing they have a humane, kind, maybe even lovable (or at least pittiable) side gives them a lot of depth without needing a lot of extra page time.

I love doing that, especially starting out that way so that readers don't even know that character is a "bad guy" until he does something really appaling... that FITS his character.

Rachel Aaron said...

You can rarely go wrong by making characters relatable! Especially bad guys. I respect villains who stay true to form as a reader, but only when the author's taken the time to show me why this person is the way they are.

Deep characters are pretty much the solution to every problem :D

Anonymous said...

...THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Lindsey Hodder said...

This is great advice! I've read a few books lately where certain traits were so heavily emphasised that, because we were only ever seeing the one point of view, ended up making the character, and ultimately the book, fall flat. Interestingly, it's also something I struggle with in the first few drafts of a book, as I'm still in the stages of figuring the character out. The nuances - as you notes Eli's deepening halfway through - have to be teased out over time.

Lindsey - Adventures in Young Adult Publishing

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