Roughed-Up Characters

SisterNote to writer self: Fiction is not real life.

I love my main characters—mostly flawed women who make life hard for themselves. Far from spunky ingénues, my ladies have been around the block, gained some wisdom, and made bad choices. Fictional real women.

I identified with Hannah and even the unlikable Nina in my novel, Burden of Breath. I lived with these two fragile companions for years while outlining and contemplating their story. When it got right down to the writing, my instinct was to protect them from hardship and heartache. Thank heavens my critique group and others routinely saved me from myself in this regard, reminding that my novel was fiction, and fictional characters encounter roadblocks. Lots of ‘em.

Interesting fictional characters lead bumpy lives fraught with problems because easy lives bore the reader. Think about a favorite novel. Notice how the main character’s goal is thwarted in both tragic and benign ways? For example:
• Gossip keeps two lovers apart.
• A woman meets a blind date with the price tag hanging from the sleeve of her jacket.
• A crowded platform prevents a single mom from catching the train home, and the childcare center is closed when she arrives an hour late to pick up her son.
• She chooses the wrong man, and any fool can see it.

Critique members say I’m too gentle with the protagonist in my new novel’s first draft. Make us worry about her, they say. Make her boyfriend meaner.

Meaner? In real life, mean people are dead to me. I have nothing to do with them.

Writing a more despicable boyfriend for my character won’t be pleasant, first, because I care what happens to her, and second, due to my lack of insight about mean men. I learned the surprising fact last year as the sole woman participating in our critique group. (Other women have joined since.) Five normal writer guys interpreted, attributed meaning, and argued amongst themselves about my female main character’s motives in ways I never imagined. Then again, after reviewing their work, I often said, “Please tell me that men don’t think like this.” Always their answer was: It depends. My critique friends’ comments then and now suggest that without their feedback, my male characters verge on too nice. So I’m channeling mean boyfriends—one in particular who… oh, never mind.

Bottom line: I’m roughing up my protagonist in the second draft. If I can make our critique group worry, then surely my women readers will keep reading to see what in the world that woman will do next.

If she can take it, I can.

Ann Minnett

Ann Minnett MWW photo

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3 thoughts on “Roughed-Up Characters

  1. Ah, yes. We want to protect our characters, especially our women! But what a great opportunity you had to see the male POV in action — all nice men, good men, but they see the world differently than women do. Your male characters will be much richer and more complex as a result. (And if you need to channel a mean boyfriend, just give me a call!)

  2. I’m sure your readers could send plenty about mean men! Theres a lot of them out there and theres lots of info about them out there too. But its refreshing that you’re clueless to it. 🙂

  3. People need stories to help them learn how to cope with life. Sarah Dessen’s Dreamland is a book for young adults about an abusive relationship. I used it for teaching in an alternative school. The principal had me order extra copies. Keep up the good writing. Karen

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