Writing Problems – Getting to Know My Characters

My last MFA submission came back with a comment from my mentor that made my just want to pop. There is apparently a distance between the reader and my main character, which keeps the reader from getting really inside the story. It’s pretty much my biggest problem right now, and I need to work on getting past it.

I have no idea how.

This is a story I’ve been working on for a couple of years. And to be told that even after all that time I don’t let the reader get to know my character…. well, it just makes me want to bash my head into my desk continuously. When this was revealed as my problem, I got this incredibly closed in feeling, like I was being pushed against a wall and was being told “Go forward!” but I can’t, because there’s a fricking wall there. Very frustrating, and claustrophobic.

This isn’t a problem I can solve with mere writing and editing. I have to sit and figure out who my character is – because it’s turning out, I don’t know her as well as I thought. It shows, and it’s the whole root of my problem. So I’ve been talking out loud, and jotting down notes, and writing out bits of story that will never, ever come up in the actual novel. I’m trying to work out bit by bit every aspect of my character, and trying to work out every part where she feels like someone distant that the reader doesn’t know. It’s really hard, and I feel like I’m working at a snail’s pace by doing it. This has become one of those points where I’m worried that I’ve hit the end of my skill set, that there’s nothing that I’m capable of doing that could possibly make this story better.

But really, I feel like that every week, so maybe I can crack through this, too.

12 thoughts on “Writing Problems – Getting to Know My Characters

  1. Yeah, everything you thought you knew about a character–it changes as the story progresses. Maybe your character just needs a few more additions?

    • I don’t even know if it’s that the character changes, per say, but that as the story progresses I discover things about her that I didn’t know were there. I started with the basic idea of who she was, but now I need to go deeper so that people reading it sympathize and understand her.

  2. Well, here’s an easy suggestion: Every now and then put something about your character in that isn’t really relevant. I know that sounds odd, and I don’t know what type of story you have, but if you let drop her favorite candy bar, or her favorite smell, or the way she is afraid of hamsters because of something from her past… well it gives us a sense that we know her, even if it’s superficial aspects of her personality, it helps. It’s disconcerting to know a character’s inner thoughts and beliefs but not know anything about what she likes or dislikes.

    • Hi Kathy,

      The story turned out better (I hope so, at least, it’s the manuscript I’m shopping around right now). It took a while, and a lot of edits, many of them minor. Part of it was remembering to “show” her emotions instead of stating them, like getting across that she’s frustrated through the tone in the narrative rather than saying “she was frustrated”, and cut out “distancing phrases” like “she thought” or “she wondered” and just give her thoughts. There were a lot of little edits, too, like being very particular with verb choice. I spent a lot of time with Nancy Kress’s Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint and Orson Scott Card’s Character’s & Viewpoint for help.

      And egads, almost three years ago I wrote this? Time flies.

      • I certainly agree that time flies. There is always a million things to do (not quite, but it feels like that). I have been working on the same book for five years. I just finished a revision. I found similar things in my manuscript that had to come out. Mine is in first person, so my mistakes were things like, “I feel” “I thought I heard”. I got rid of all of those mistakes, deleted scenes and added others. That was my fifth revision. Every time I think I am done, I find more to do. This is the year I send it out. I want to get working on the other novels I started – at least get the first draft done for one of them.

        • That’s great! Even ignoring the “I feel” things, the writing is so much cleaner when you take all that out. It’s hard to work on other stuff, when you want to stay in the moment of your main project.

          I probably spent at least 4 years on that novel. I remember thinking at that time above that I was really close, I just needed to tweak some plot. When he told me the main character problem, and I realized he was right, I actually felt nauseous, I was so sure I couldn’t fix it. But it worked out (maybe?)

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