by Kasey Tross
Last Saturday I had the fun opportunity to attend a free panel discussion offered by my local library. The title of the event was “Sizzle and Smoke”, and the main topic was on how to combine the genres of romance and mystery/suspense. It was sponsored by the local chapter of Sisters in Crime, a group for female crime novelists. The panelists were authors Marliss Melton, Kit Wilkinson, and Christine Trent, and the moderator was author Mary Burton.
We discussed a wide variety of topics over the course of two hours, including the average body count of a crime novel (at least 1, not more than 3), how to steal a private jet (it’s all about timing), and how to successfully blow up a SWAT communications vehicle (FYI- don’t google that and then try to get on a military base- turns out the government has trust issues with people who google stuff like that). While that was all quite interesting, to say the least, one of other topics that caught my attention was about character.
Building my characters is something that I struggle with. I don’t know why. I was so frustrated with the two-dimensionalness (I think I just made that up but blogger is putting no squiggly lines under it- cool!) of my main character one night that I was getting a little bit punchy. I started writing “Your MC is so flat” jokes (no, those are not a real joke category, at least not that I’m aware- just me making stuff up again). One of my favorites was, “Your MC is so flat she got served up on a plate at IHOP.” Yeah...I get weird when I’m tired.
Anyway, at the panel discussion one of the authors talked about how sometimes our secondary characters can start to steal the show with their personalities. As she said that, I realized she was right. My main character was flat as a pancake, but I had a couple of secondary characters who popped off the page like a full-sized wedding cake. They had layers, they were interesting, they had depth and detail. Why was that? Well, the author made the very astute observation that we keep our main characters very safe, because we need them. We have a to-do list for them in the story; they are the vehicle that must get the story from Point A to Point B. None of this crazy ‘personality' stuff allowed.
When she said that I realized how true that is for me. I am relying on my main character, and I am afraid that if I give her too much personality she won’t be reliable enough to get me through my story.
So this author gave us the advice to let our main characters be a little flawed. Shine the light on not only their best qualities but also their worst- take some risks with them. Don’t limit your story to ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’- let the main character be her own worst enemy sometimes. It’s okay- she’s not you. I think sometimes I forget that. (Check out Katy White’s great post about character flaws here.)
Another piece of advice I read recently about building characters came from Utah Children’s Writers- one of the writers over there suggested that we make our main characters someone we’d want to hang out with. Because, if you think about it, you’re asking your reader to spend several hours of their life with your main character. If your MC is not all that likable (even with their flaws) then chances are good that you'll lose the reader. And like Betsy said on Saturday, the whole point is to ENTERTAIN THE READER. (I totally love that. Genius, I tell you.)
So I am now going to save my MC from a fate worse than IHOP- she’s about to find herself doing something she was just judging someone else for doing earlier in the book and hurting someone she loves. Hmm...
How do you make your main characters pop?