The Character’s the Thing

As a writer of fiction, I have yet to be published.  I’m still learning how to write believable fiction, feeling my way along the pathway to publication.  I’ve read books and many, many articles in writing magazines.  I’ve gone to writing and science fiction conventions, and talked to published writers and listened to them as they discussed what got them to publication.  I’ve heard agents and editors, and I’ve queried same.  Having been a scientist all my life and written many scientific papers, I’ve had to unlearn all I knew about writing in order to take up the fiction style.  I’ve learned a lot.

There are a lot of rules about writing.  An almost overwhelming number.  No wonder some people go to college and get a master’s degree just to do creative fiction or nonfiction.  I’ve learned a lot of those rules (and blogged about some of them), but I’ve run across a rule (actually not so much a rule as a suggestion) which deserves passing on to others.  This rather loose rule is about the characters in a story.

When I began my first science fiction novel, I made a few notes about the characters, around a paragraph each.  Seemed sufficient at the time.  Then I wrote the novel, making up details about each character’s life as I went along.  That worked well enough to get the novel written, and get it through several revisions as suggested by a number of readers (friends, critique groups, other experts in the field).  But the novel stalled.  I could revise and revise, but the revisions were little better than the original.  I needed some other serious change to bring the novel up to publication quality.

Novels are invariably about people.  (An exception might be Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, whose main character is a dog, but humans play a role in the book, too.)  Every human (or space alien) has a history: a birth, childhood, adulthood, etc., all of which contribute to the totality of what we call a person.  The characters in a story deserve the same consideration.  That’s what was missing from my novel, and that was what kept it from coming alive with real character.

The short paragraphs I wrote about the characters in my novel weren’t sufficient in most cases.  The main characters, especially, deserved more.  I’d read about making detailed life histories for main characters several times, and several people had suggested it over and over (thanks, Carrie).  But I resisted, figuring I could work it out as I wrote.  Didn’t work.  I finally relented.

Now I have detailed life histories for at least three characters in my novel, and somewhat less detailed histories for several others, and the plot is beginning to gel.  The tension and conflict necessary for a good novel are emerging, and a serious revision of the novel seems much easier now.  Novels are tension-driven (not character-driven or plot-driven) and now that I’ve given the characters a history and lifestyle that provides potential for that tension, the revision should result in a novel I can be proud of, and will provide the reader with an entertaining story.  After all, that’s what novels are all about, aren’t they?  But that’s another blog.

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