August 16, 2011

When Your Character Needs to Get Over It

I'm losing patience with my main character. This is probably a bad sign. Because if I want to yell, "Oh, stop whining and get over it already!" even though I have a thorough knowledge of his backstory and every nuance of his current situation, then it's a good bet that a reader will have even less sympathy.

This character has been a tricky one to write. He's depressed, he's at a bad place in life, and he's justifiably pessimistic about his future. Less justifiably, he's uninterested in accepting the support that's offered to him. I've set up the reasons for his refusal in his history and personality, and hopefully readers will buy the flawed logic behind his choices. The plot depends on it. But I worry that my character is spending too much time wallowing in self-pity.

The readers of the previous draft were extremely helpful in pointing out where they felt sympathy for my character's problems and where they thought he was only feeling sorry for himself. (I have one early reader who can always be counted on to tell me when she thinks a character deserves to be slapped -- and I seem to write a lot of slapworthy characters.) This is supposed to be the improved, less whiny version of the character, but I'm not sure I've got it right yet.

A couple of weeks ago I linked to a post by Theresa Stevens on avoiding melodrama by having another character point out when a character's reactions are out of proportion. That second character acts as a proxy for the reader, who is probably thinking the same thing, and provides an opportunity to explore the motivations behind the response.

Along similar lines, Robin Black suggests in a Beyond the Margins post:

Let a secondary character express impatience with the character's stuckness before your reader does and odds are your reader will never feel the need to express it. And this is a technique with broader use than just stories about loss. There are many times when having a supporting player express a frustration that is in some ways a near inevitable byproduct of the story, will take pressure off the reader who may well be feeling the same thing.

So I've had quite a few other characters tell my main character that he needs to get over himself. Maybe it's too much, and maybe I need to more quickly get to the point in the story when he actually does. I'm confident that the readers of the next draft won't be shy about letting me know.

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