Matching Story and Character

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I was so glad to see this tweet by my friend and neighbor who also happens to be an author:

Sometimes I have unrealistic expectations, thinking that I should have known my characters before ever drafting, that they should be so clear to me that it would be impossible to imagine them any other way.

Instead, they seem to evolve, as does the story. What I write in one draft can turn out to be completely wrong for that character in the next draft — or completely wrong for the story I’m trying to tell. And I keep changing my mind bit by bit about just what that story is!

In other words, characters and story are elusive things, and not only do they have to be pinned down and made real, but they have to work together.

What haunts me especially is when I think of books I’ve read where even just one character did not feel real, coming across too generic. When that happens, it ruins the book for me! I certainly don’t want my book to be that way. I need to get to the point Shannon describes, where by the final draft both story and characters are KNOWN.

I’d been stuck on a particularly crucial scene in my novel for a long time. With each draft, I’d try writing it a different way, trying to channel the two characters involved and figure out how the two of them would fare in this confrontation. But yesterday I realized that even though I’d scrapped the scene and started over multiple times, I always brought it to the same conclusion: one character wanted something and the other character said no.

Working within those constraints, I’d agonized over how to make it work. I knew what I wanted the scene to feel like, having readers sympathize with both sides and feel the desperation of both sides, but I couldn’t make it happen.

Finally yesterday I asked myself, “Would she really just say no, flat out, end of discussion?” That actually didn’t seem like her at all. But I knew that she wouldn’t say yes either, with so much at stake and with her loyalties firmly elsewhere.

That’s when I realized what she would say: “I need to think about it.”

So simple! And yet perfect: enhancing both story and characters. The other character struggles with patience, so what a great way to test that patience. And it creates a new dynamic going into the next scene that I think will help the flow of the story.

I love it when it clicks — when a solution pulls multiple aspects together, like synergy.

So I’m going to try not to stress about not being sure of my characters from the beginning and just enjoy the process of finding all the right matches — the ones that make story and character gel.

Readers, can you tell when a character hasn’t been fleshed out enough? How does it affect your enjoyment of the story? Writers, what do you do to know your characters? Do they gradually become three-dimensional as your story evolves, or do you begin with them fully formed? I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts.

Leave a comment!

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4 responses »

  1. Love this whole thing! I honestly feel that small changes can just make everything fall into place. And as an author, there was always the one or two scenes that weren’t quite where I wanted them to be. Looking back, I don’t know if anyone else noticed them. But they did notice how much better it became when I FINALLY figured out how to fix that scene.

    There are quite a few books that have fallen flat for me because of a flat character. I need my characters fully developed.

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    • That’s so true. I’ve also experienced the opposite: where readers did tell me that a scene wasn’t working and then all I did was change something minor and on the next reading the scene went so smoothly for readers that they thought I was strange for asking if it worked!

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  2. I love this as well. I always stress over not knowing my characters well enough in my first drafts. It makes sense that I wouldn’t, though. From now on I’m going to try and think of first draft characters as dates, people I’m just getting to know before deciding to take the plunge. Awesome post.

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    • What a great analogy! Yes, that’s totally what it’s like. It’s a first date where you have a rough idea of who they are, you like them enough to go out with them, but you haven’t had enough experiences together to know each other yet. The only way to get to know people is through continued interaction: events, situations, conversations — story!

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