Characters are Real People

As many of you know, I finished a version of The Book back in February 2016. I sent it to agents, thinking it was done and ready to be published. One of the agents wrote back, "I'm not connecting to the characters." 

At the time, I wasn't sure what she meant. I was trained in nonfiction and largely had to learn the practice of fiction writing over the last five years by trial, error, and learning about it via books. In my nonfiction writing, the characters were often secondary to the theme of the piece or the facts being conveyed. 

In fiction writing, the characters more often are central. They are the facts. They embody the themes. They are the drivers of the plot, the manipulators of place, the heart, the why, of the story. 

I didn't know this my first go at the book. And that's why it sucked. 

No, seriously, it was bad writing. But we need to do the bad writing in order to create the good. Likewise, we need to spend a lot of time getting to know our characters in order to make them come alive on the page.

To answer my friend's question: I connect with my characters in the same way we connect with anyone in our lives. That is, through quality time spent with them. In the last four years, I've spent more time with my two main characters than I have with anyone except my husband. I didn't know my protagonist preferred tomato soup and wore a newsboy cap until last fall. I was surprised to learn my other main character had a complicated relationship with alcohol.   

Character development happens when we begin to treat our characters like real people: they have desires and needs and fears. I put my pen to paper, my fingertips to the keyboard, and ask my character, "So, show me, what's your secret?" As we get to know each other, she begins to reveal a little more, layer by layer. Until, years later, I can tell you she prefers her coffee black and her lovers redheaded.