I have a problem with character development at times. I think up a story, have this idea for my main protagonist and I run with it. In the first draft of my novels, these people are simply “perfect.” They are beautiful and kind. They don’t curse, drink or steal. They’re amazing athletes and intellectually brilliant. They can sing, dance and play musical instruments. And not just one of the abilities above, but ALL OF THEM. It’s as if I’m trying to make a superhero version of “me” that is just so perfect all I want to do is live in their amazing little world for the entirety of the story.
But, that’s not real life. Twenty-two year olds don’t say “gosh, darn and shucks.” People have problems and they’re vulnerable. There are things they can’t do. No one is as flawless as I make my characters in the first draft of any of my novels.
And that’s where my editor, Denise Vitola, came in again on my most recent work. My beautiful and faultless female protagonist is human and there’s no way in this first draft she coming off as believable. Denise said, “You know, she could have problems in her relationships with her friends and her brother, you know.” I was like, “Why? Why can’t they all just get along?” She said, “Because that’s not real life. You don’t have to make your characters so perfect.”
Her final thought on this conversation stuck with me greatly. “Lyse, we don’t have to like your main character, but we DO have to empathize with them.” I can’t stop thinking about that comment and it’s now shaping my perception of every character I’ve ever written.
The word, “empathize.” What a great word. I need to add empathy and depth to my characters. I need to give them real life problems. I have to make my readers care about them. My main protagonist now fights with her brother like cats and dogs, she is emotional, she misses her target when she shoots someone. She has piercings, wears too much make-up and is a bit of a tease. In the first draft she was so pristine she could have floated. She’s finally “real.”
So, beware of making your characters too perfect. If they’re human, and this isn’t a sci-fi book about aliens, we must remember to keep them humanly real so they are believable for our readers.
Time to go give my character a few tattoos. :)
For anyone interested, my editor Denise is doing a special until Labor Day. Normally she charges $4 a page, but she’s only charging $2 a page, double-spaced, for your manuscript. Here’s her website: http://www.thomas-talks-to-me.com/editing/index.html