Even after all the years I’ve been writing (I’ve been at now since 1991!) I’m still learning new things about the craft and about my own individual process.
In the middle of last year, halfway through writing another thriller, I came to the decision my characters were boring and no reader would ever want to hear their story. I set the manuscript aside and went on to work on something else.
It’s not the first time this has happened. Thankfully in every case, after taking a break, I’ve come back to the story with fresh eyes and found ways to make it more compelling, the characters more three dimensional.
Therefore I was hardly surprised when the same thing happened on this occasion. After working on a screenplay for several months, then having a break over Christmas, I went back and re-read the discarded manuscript and saw ways to bring its characters to life.
The difference this time was that I had an insight into why it happened.
When a reader picks up a book, they’re engaging with characters fully realized. In all but a few disappointing cases, the author has spent months, even years, fleshing out their heroes, heroines and villains into living, breathing individuals. Investing them with compelling motives, resonant pasts, strengths and weaknesses, and major challenges with which to contend.
For the author writing that very same book the experience can be vastly different. When I first begin to work on a story my characters are NOT fully formed. At the start they may be little more to me than simple arc- or stereotypes.
That’s what happened with my novel last year. In that first-draft stage my characters were nothing but cardboard cutouts. Is it any wonder they seemed boring to me? Now that I’ve got to know them better I really quite like them.
Perhaps authors differ in this regard. As in real life, some of us take longer to get to know others. The same could hold true with our characters. In a similar way, some characters could be more reticent than others, unwilling to reveal themselves at first. In any case I’d say it’s rare that a character ever leaps fully-formed into a writer’s mind. At least they’ve never leapt into mine!
Moving forward I’ll try to remember…for me the first draft of writing a novel is my ‘getting-to-know-you’ draft. My characters only seem dull at this stage because I don’t know them. I need to be patient and let them take as long as they need to show themselves.
I need to go easy on my boring characters. After all we’ve only just met.