Writing difficult characters

A chess piece from my second Doctor Who chess setWordcount: 11200

Welcome to Writing Wednesday!

We are now halfway through the month of April. As you can see from my wordcount, I am perfectly on schedule with my Camp NaNo novel, Six. Still, I feel like I am struggling a bit. The source of my struggle lies in the fact that my three main characters are very different people from myself. I didn’t have this problem with The Grand Asylum, because Gertie Grey is not so far removed from my own character. Sure, she is a little braver and stands up for herself in a way I wish I would have done, but ultimately I don’t have to make much of an effort to ‘understand’ her. This is not so with my characters from Six. I’ll explain:

  • Zoe is my favourite character so far. She misses the end of the world because she is too busy worrying about clothes and boys. Nonetheless, she adapts seamlessly to the new situation with a fashionable end-of-the-world look and attitude to match. As such, Zoe is a fairly shallow, yet kick-ass teenage heroine. In other words, she is my opposite (not shallow and definitely not kick-ass)!
  • Alexia is slightly less unlike me. She is very smart, but has a mildly unpleasant character. She tends to be a bit mean. Only when she finds a challenge, she is happy. Part of her attitude is a mask, however. Due to certain experiences she has learned not to make herself vulnerable. Being sullen is a shield for her.
  • Damon is a single father with a two-year-old son, about whom he worries a great deal (with good reason). There is only one person he can confide in: his sister.

Each character should have his or her own ‘voice’. It is voice that makes a character memorable and if you check literary agents’ websites, you’ll find that the majority are looking for ‘a strong voice’. Voice is generally expressed in three different ways: through actions, through dialogue and through thoughts. Gertie’s voice was easy for me. She has a kind of literary, slightly sarcastic voice and I loved writing it. Zoe and Damon, who are represented in the first person, wouldn’t have a literary voice. Alexis would be (very) sarcastic, but I am writing her in the third person, adding the extra layer of the narrator. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, the narrator occurs when you’re writing in the third (or second) person: ‘Alexis walked to school’. Someone, not Alexis, is telling us this. Usually the narrator remains an unnamed, unacknowledged entity, but he/she can definitely have a strong voice. Compare:

  • ‘Alexis tripped and saw the ground rise up to her. When her knees hit it, a bolt of pain shot through them.
  • ‘Alexis tripped and fell clumsily on the ground. It looked ridiculous, but Alexis wasn’t amused.’

In the first sentence, the narrator is very close to Alexis, writing down her experience of the event. In the second sentence, the narrator is a bit more distant and even offers his/her own opinion on the event. In Six, I chose the first approach, staying very close to Alexis while still using the third person. For Damon and Zoe I am using the epistolary first person, i.e. I am writing their diary and letters respectively.
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So, as I already mentioned, I am struggling to give my characters a true, strong voice of their own through my writing. It is difficult because their voice is not my own voice and because it is difficult for me to put myself in their shoes. It is difficult because I have to abandon my own voice, which I love and treasure (a writer’s indulgence!), but I still need to write a strong, independent and recognisable voice (or three in fact).

If you are a writer and reading this, how do you handle this problem?

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4 responses to “Writing difficult characters

  1. My current WIP is written in third person limited…I hover around the third person distant voice sometimes but I’m trying to cut it down to the barest minimum.

    • Interesting! I just read your blog post about POV and I understand how difficult it can be to choose one sometimes. The cultural differences are very recognizable for me too.

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