April 17, 2013 by Kira Lyn Blue
“Make your main character unlike you.” – from Novelist’s Boot Camp.
When I first saw this piece of advice, I riled against it. I’m sitting there thinking, “But, but, but… how the heck does that mesh with ‘Write what you know’?”
I read through Todd Stone’s reasoning for making my main character not me several times and still hated it. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to create an interesting character whose head I couldn’t get inside. For my first draft of Murphy’s First Law, I ended up only grudgingly following the bare minimum of his suggestions to make my character unlike me. Now, several months later, I finally understand why Stone is so insistent on this point. He even said it, but I wasn’t listening. Now I am:
“… when you, as the author, sneak in to your protagonist’s skin, there’s the chance that your character will ultimately be torn in two very different directions.”
In other words, you will end up having the character act as you would and not as the story requires.
Books require conflict. In real life, most of us actively avoid it.
If my character responds to things the way I would, it’s gonna be a long boring story because everyone is going to get along too well.
As a writer, I have all the time in the world to think about the scenario I’ve set up for my characters and it’s too easy to have them all work it out in the most logical way possible. Yawn. Even in real life, people don’t react that rationally. There’s emotions, knee-jerk reactions, misunderstandings, and ulterior motives.
When writing, you have to amp those up even further to create conflict and tension that will keep your reader turning pages. I highly recommend checking out Kristen Lamb’s post Great Fiction Goes for the Guts for more discussion on just how important it is to have conflict on every page of your book.
And that is much easier to do if your character is not an extension or some version of you.
I am now much more supportive of Stone’s suggestion to put yourself somewhere in the story other than your main character, because I’ve learned the hard way. Revisions are difficult enough without constant reminders of just how boring you really are while you’re fixing scenes that lack conflict. I’d much rather focus on cleaning up subplots, the overall story arc, and basic proofreading than having to fix as much as I have.
I’m not saying it can’t be done, just providing a cautionary tale so you can avoid the pitfalls that I ran headfirst into while thumbing my nose at the experts.
What do you think? Have you had similar struggles in your own writing? Share with the group!