For me, main characters present a unique problem: my secondaries want to take over. It nearly happened with Frieda, the 90-year-old in Dakota Blues, and I’m currently wrestling with Jessie, a 25-year-old in the sequel, Key Largo Blues. This is a pattern I hadn’t really noticed until someone in my critique group brought it up. I went home, discouraged, until I realized that I’m probably putting too much pressure on the main. Thus my secondary characters are written more freely, and they come across as more interesting. So that’s
TIP #1: Try relegating your main character to a supporting role. Maybe you’ll discover something…like the fact that your sidekick IS the story, hmmm?
And how might you “try relegating”? How, without rewriting the book, might you audition your main character for the sidekick role?
TIP #2: Picture yourself as a therapist, talking to your character. She’s in your office, on the couch, and you’re asking questions.
Here are some questions you might ask her (and when you do this, you have to assume she’d give you an answer. Unlike real therapy, where they don’t really know):
- What is the big mistake you keep making with your life? How has that messed things up for you?
- Why do you do that? Why can’t you see how it’s hurting or limiting you?
Then ask yourself, as the creator of this fictional world:
- What might happen to open her eyes?
- Who might come along to help her? To stand in her way as she tries to achieve understanding or emotional maturity?
- What are her choices, and how will she resist them?
- What foolish mistakes might she make on the way to enlightenment?
Now, let’s go to a third-person investigation of the character. One of the best ways to explore a character is to:
TIP #3: Write a scene (even if only in your head) where two or three of the other characters in the story are talking about your main character.
Imagine they’re walking along the beach, trying to figure out why your main character acts like such a doormat, dictator, or ditz. They’re shaking their heads, rolling their eyes (okay, scratch that) and wondering what the hell is her problem, anyway. Maybe it prompts them to feel sympathy (why?), anger (why?), or determination to (what?) See what’s happening? By having her friends talk behind her back, you might not only get the answer to her psyche, but some delicious secondary-character situations as well. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
For more ideas on character development, check out this excellent list by Justine Musk.