REact and PROact – developing your character

I spoke about character development this past weekend at the Florida Writer’s Conference, and part of my talk involved analyzing whether your main character has earned his/her Head Kahuna status, or whether she’s playing the wet booger. To whit, I pulled this post out of mothballs for a dust off.

originally posted 2/2011

I happened to be working on my book the other week and hit a stalemate. Nothing was working. What was wrong? I decided I was bored with my main character. She’s a saucy thing, and I felt she’d become dull and lifeless – much like my attempts at baking. Distressed, I walked away from the book for a bit so I could analyze the problem. At two 0′clock that next morning it hit me.

My MC was reacting to everything, and not proacting. What I mean by this is that she was reacting to situations going on around her rather than making something happen. I told her under no uncertain terms that if she was going to maintain Big Kahuna status, then she needed to be proactive. Ever the tart, she told me to get off my lower forty and write her that way. Wench.

But she’s right, of course. I do need to pull her out of her reactive role and allow her to do what she does best – take charge. Whether she’s observing her surroundings or involved in a big scene, she needs to be the proactive, driving force behind it. The minute I allow her to lose her star status, the story drags, and she becomes part of the background…definitely not her style.

Mind you, I’m not talking about my MC being the absolute star of every scene, but writing her so that she’s the focal point – even if she’s being quietly proactive. What I mean by that is that she’s still actively involved in the scene even though the current focus is somewhere else. For example, I need to describe the exotic settings because it’s integral to the story – and I need the reader to see it through her eyes.

It’s frightfully easy to fall into the trap of tell vs. show, as in:

Example 1:

She saw the jungle unfold around her, revealing a vast array of greens and yellows that she never knew existed. She walked past giant flowers and leaves.

Notice how the focal point is on the scenery? It’s ok, but a whole diet of “she saw” is dull and lifeless because she’s simply reacting to the scene by taking a backseat to the setting. So I rewrote it, using dialog, in order to make her proactive – and more in control of the scene:

Example 2:

Stepping into the clearing, the jungle unfolded around her, revealing a brilliant pallet of colors. She sucked in an unconscious breath. “Whoa. So this is what Picasso’s paintings would have looked like if he was on crack.” She fingered a flower whose deep red hues shimmered when it touched the sun’s rays. “I’ve never seen colors like this. They’re so vibrant, my eyes hurt. Tell me this isn’t poisonous, okay?”

And this is a bit of what I’ve noticed in submissions. The character is described in a query letter as having wonderful qualities, but upon reading pages, I notice how they repeatedly get lost within a scene.

If a writer isn’t paying attention, plot twists or scenes can take over and shove the MC against the wall. This puts them into the observer role. It’s one thing to observe a setting or situation and be a wallflower, and quite another to actively observe. And our characters do need to observe all kinds of things. How they do it is what turns them into reactive or proactive.

An effective way to keep your character proactive is through dialog or inner dialog because you’re keeping them front and center. The reader stays in their head, and this gives the character automatic control over the scene, no matter how big it is. And it also adds dimension to your character because we have a better feel for their thought processes. Example 2 (above) shows you that the character has some spit to her…something the reader wouldn’t have gotten had I stuck with Example 1.

Remember, the current story is taking place because something happened “offscreen” that initiated your character’s involvement, so those main characters are the vehicle that propel the plot. They gotta be proactive and own the story. It’s the difference between enjoying a book and tossing it against the wall.

2 Responses to REact and PROact – developing your character

  1. authorguy says:

    The technique I use is to do as much description as possible in terms of what the character perceives in his or her world, not necessarily everything there is, but the things that matter to them then. This eases the need for dialog tags but opens the door to minor head-hopping.

  2. B says:

    My MC in my current WIP is falling into this trap. I’m looking forward to the rewrites when I can make her as awesome as I know she can be.

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