One of my characters dreams of being a cowgirl in Montana to help save wild horses. (Photo by micadew on Flickr)

When Therese Walsh posted a prompt on Facebook, asking those of us going to the Writer Unboxed UnConference—

What do you love about the main character of your work-in-progress? What makes you want to spend time with him/her? What, if anything, makes it hard to spend time with him/her? Are any characters in your WIP pulling your focus, asking for their own story, maybe, or changing the tenor of your work for other reasons?

I couldn’t come up with a clear answer. You see, I’m at the tentative beginnings of a new project.

But I also couldn’t let Therese’s question go. It stayed in the back of my mind as I sat down to write, and I wondered—what was it I’d loved about past characters? What compelled me to write hundreds of thousands of words about them? I decided that answering the questions about them might lead me as an exercise, a sort of guide post, to getting to know my new main character(s). Basically, I’m hoping I might learn what kind of characters intrigue me . . . and why.

What do I love about my main character?

Book 1: Annie is 30-something and recently divorced. She moves to a new town to start over fresh. I love Annie’s spontaneity and sense of adventure as well as her courage to live in a place that doesn’t easily welcome outsiders.

Book 2: Maggie is a 50-year-old mom whose kids have just left for college. She helps a friend get off a murder charge. I love Maggie because she challenges everything head on. She’s also funny and warm, and I’d like to be friends with her. She does hard things that need to get done.

Book 3: Ellen is nineteen, a freshman in college who is recovering from a plane crash that killed her father. Her injuries leave her with a unique symptom: time travel. She travels to 1823 where she falls in love with a college student who becomes in her time a famous author, and she makes the courageous decision to stay with him in the past (he cannot travel to the future). I love Ellen’s sense of adventure and her ability to persevere through physical pain.

Book 4: Marin is eighteen. She dreams of saving wild horses. She lives in the 1960s, and her boyfriend joins the Army to fight in Vietnam. After he is killed in action she is lost but eventually finds the courage to go on with her dreams. I love Marin’s depth of love and her strength of courage to go on.

Reflection: I love main characters who are courageous and tough when faced with life-changing adversity. But I also love characters who are vulnerable and not afraid to admit their fears and insecurities. I am a big-time worrier, and my worries often paralyze me. I wish I could be more like my characters—moved to action when faced with danger or adversity—maybe that’s one of the reasons I create characters like this.

What, if anything, makes it hard to spend time with her?

This is a tougher question. I really needed to think hard and honestly about it for each character . . . partly because I’m (often) challenged as I attempt to create characters who are whole and complete: warts and all. I forget that flaws, weaknesses, and imperfections create more interesting, relatable, and authentic characters so that readers can feel engaged and emotionally connected to the story. Unfortunately, I need to admit to myself that my characters sometimes suffer from perfect character syndrome. And as described in this blog from the Goshen Public Library by Helen M. Pugsley, “perfect characters are boring.”

My character Maggie, in particular, is a bit of a Suzy Sunshine. Readers have commented that she, her husband, and her marriage are “too perfect.” I never saw it as I was writing the character—I actually thought Maggie was too weak and not self-reliant enough at times—but since I received the comments, I’ve realized that it’s at least sometimes true. In the sequel to the mystery novel, I worked harder to make Maggie authentic and more well-rounded and to give her true (and obvious) flaws and make her less of a perfect character.

Another piece of feedback I’ve gotten about some of my characters is that they are bristly or unlikeable. I don’t necessarily view this as a problem—in fact, I sometimes think this is a too-easy a criticism of female characters—I mean we are all bristly at times and we can’t be liked by everyone. But for one character in particular—Ellen, the nineteen-year-old time traveler—it is sometimes hard for me to spend time with her because she is quite reactive to other characters’ criticism. She is deeply wounded by losing her father and struggling with a near-debilitating conversion disorder (a psychological condition in which a person may have blindness, paralysis, or other neurologic symptoms). She is dealing with a lot, and sometimes she’s hard to be around.

Therese’s question made me realize that at least in Ellen’s case, she may come across as difficult or bristly because I don’t show the range of her character and the nuances of her struggles. Instead, her dialogue is often extreme and one-dimensional. She loses her temper and yells or swears then splits from the present and time travels. Although she is indeed difficult at times—in how she reacts to other characters—she may need more breathing room to exhibit her unique feelings, needs, and abilities in better ways than tantrums and running away.

Reflection: Work to create more authentic well-rounded characters that help readers feel emotionally engaged. Characters need to feel relatable with challenges, fears, imperfections, and contradictions. Then . . . work harder to show(not only tell) how the character and other characters behave and deal with (or don’t deal with) them.

Are there characters in your WIP pulling your focus, asking for their own story, maybe, or changing the tenor of your work for other reasons?

There is a secondary character in my mystery novel who is a mystery in his own right. He has a dark past, and I think he may merit his own story. He has changed the tenor of my protagonist Maggie’s second story (the sequel to Book 2) because she is drawn into his troubled past. He started as a more minor character, but he grew to become both Maggie’s partner but also her antagonist—and a secondary story line about their growing friendship and mistrust grew in the shadows.

Reflection: This is the first time a secondary character has stepped into the limelight with a definite story of his own. I’ve considered writing a story with him as a protagonist because of his depth, his ability to seem one thing on the outside but be another inside. I also like that he is a kind and generous person while also being able to set boundaries.

Next Steps

In the next week I’ll sit down with the characters in my new WIP and think about these same questions. I don’t usually answer prompts, but this one proved useful in helping me analyze my characters and what makes them tick. Not from the work’s point of view and how the characters relate to the plot and other aspects of the story, but how I relate to the characters. And, more importantly, how I can build a character who stands on her own two feet who can have a relationship with the reader.

Now it’s your turn . . . What do you love about the main character of your work-in-progress? What makes you want to spend time with him/her? What, if anything, makes it hard to spend time with him/her? Are any characters in your WIP pulling your focus, asking for their own story, maybe, or changing the tenor of your work for other reasons?

About Julia Munroe Martin

Julia Munroe Martin (@jmunroemartin) is a writer and blogger who lives in an old house in southern coastal Maine. Julia’s other passion is photography, and if she’s not writing at the dining room table or a local coffeeshop, you’ll likely find her on the beach or dock taking photos. Julia writes The Empty Nest Can Be Murder mystery series as J. M. Maison.

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Author: Julia Munroe Martin

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