I’ve been having a problem with one of my characters: she doesn’t exist.
Yes, I’m well aware that I’m writing fiction. Yes, I’m well aware that no bookshop in history has ever been abducted by hunky space miners. Yes, I’m well aware that the people who populate the rest of the novel are not in fact real people.
Your characters shouldn’t know that.
Characters are people too.
You’ll find a hundred thousand blog posts out there about good characterization. There are novels written about the questions you’re supposed to ask yourself, hypothetical situations you can run your characters through. They tell you to make sure your heroes have a flaw, to make sure the reader relates to your villain. Pass the Bechdel Test. Be sure they have their own subplots. No self-insertion, no Manic Pixie Dream Girls.
It boils down to this: write people, not plot vehicles.
Sometimes that means breaking the above rules. Usually it means being aware of them. It always means you have to be aware of the people around you. It means observing the wants, the needs, the purposes of the people around you. It means understanding the thought processes of other people– and being okay with those processes being different than your own, which is the hardest part of writing.
Getting into their heads
I have two problem characters, really. One of them, the girl I mentioned above, I’ll deal with in a moment. The second is a Hispanic man in his mid-twenties, an immigrant to Chicago. He is, I think, a fairly strong character. He has a short but solid backstory, some pretty strong scenes in the novel, and overall I have a good sense of his character.
Thing is, I am not now nor have I ever been a Hispanic man in his mid-twenties. I am a tiny white girl from East Coast suburbs who recently moved to a pretty tiny “city” in Iowa. I love languages, but I don’t speak Spanish. I have traveled abroad a good deal, but I grew up in the United States. I don’t have many close friends, and the ones I do have aren’t Hispanic; nor did I have any close Hispanic friends growing up. The only woman I know who lives in Mexico owns a resort, and she grew up in the same area I did.
So it’s hard to understand his culture. It’s not exactly a serious book, but it’s heavy on anthropology. There’s only so much research and reading you can do before you just have to ask someone: what is he doing that no Hispanic person ever would? What is he missing from your culture? Does he make sense?
Yes, he’s a character in an absurd situation, but is he a realistic character in an absurd situation?
…And making sure they have a head to begin with.
The second problem was with a female character of mine.
The more I wrote of her, the more vapid and pointless she became. She whined. She complained. I gave her something important to do and she went and did it off-page. Her relationships with my characters were either romantic or inflammatory, and added nothing to the plot but pointless complications that went nowhere.
Writing that out, she sounds almost interesting– she wasn’t. She was dull. She was a drag on the plot. Perhaps there is someone out there similar to this character, but she’s no one I want to read about– she’s more likely to fit into a romance novel than a funny space book. I’ve written characters who made the feminist in me weep, but they were at least interesting in other ways. Or essential to the plot.
She was neither.
Okay, so what do you do with characters you can’t write?
In the case of the first, you learn. You talk to people from the right culture if you can, and you research the hell out of whatever world you’re writing in. If it’s a fictional world, you get to make up the rules, but not so in real life: become familiar with whoever you’re writing about.
In the case of the second, where nothing you do is working, scrap her. Either fill in the person-sized hole where the character goes, or put someone new in it. In this case, all I did was change her age: I made her nine, not nineteen, and suddenly all sorts of personality popped out. She’d been acting childish anyway, so childhood suited her.
Fiction mirrors real life in a lot of ways. I’ve written before about starting from scratch in life; if something isn’t working, break the problem like a badly-healed bone and start anew. The same goes for fictional people as for real ones. If your character’s resisting your every plot point, if you’re shoving them toward the ending you want with all the godly might of being an author behind you– and they are still resisting? Change something.
Let them tell you what they want to do every once in a while.