Lessons Learned from Broken Characters

file5721279006391I’m a bit different from some authors. Instead of outlining and building a character from scratch, I let one fall into my head. I follow him or her around as we find the story together. So sometimes (oh, who am I kidding; it happens nearly all the time) I get to work with characters who are a little broken, a little damaged, or who don’t always make the choices I want them to.

This means I often hear the same comment from my early readers: I wanted to SLAP her!

If it’s any consolation to them, sometimes I want to slap her, too.

Yet to write a book any other way, for me, would feel wrong. It would feel like I’m forcing a character to do something contrary to his or her nature. Readers can sense this. It can make the characters’ journeys feel fake, like the author is moving them around on a chessboard to suit the needs of the plot.

When Sarah Cohen popped into my head for Sliding Past Vertical, oh boy, did I want to slap her. Probably more than any of my other heroines. She meant well. Underneath, I could sense that she meant well, and didn’t want to hurt anyone, but some of her decisions had unintended consequences because she wasn’t thinking them through. I really felt for Emerson, who still loved her after she broke up with him in college. Stop hurting my book boyfriend, I wanted to yell at her.

But I had to let her do what she was going to do. That’s one of the most important lessons I learned from her. As I write a book (and for a while afterward), the characters feel as real to me as the people I come across in the supermarket, on the train, in the gym. That’s what some readers say they love about them. Yet real people don’t always make the best choices, especially if they are in trying situations. They make the ones that feel like the best thing to do at the time. And knowing this has not only helped me feel more compassionate toward other people, it’s helped me feel more compassion for my characters and for myself.

I haven’t always made the “right” decisions in my personal life. Who has? Through writing, and especially when I’m given the gift of a character like Sarah, it helps me grow and helps me learn more about forgiveness.

In a novel, though, if a character never learns anything or changes in some way because of what she experiences, well, what’s the point of having her in the book? It’s a question writers often ask themselves while a story is in development. Sarah, as much as I wanted to sit her down and talk some sense into her, deserved to stay because she had to go through a transformation. She had a lot to learn. I had to be compassionate enough to let her do that on her own, without pushing her around or making her be someone that she wasn’t. And maybe that’s why she came into my life.

25 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Broken Characters

  1. Peabea says:

    So far being new to trying this writing thing, the two stories that I’ve been working on for a while now (the one is done but in dire need of my editing and revising) and the other, well the character is sitting in limbo, but my characters developed by the fly of the pen or I should say in this modern day keyboard. One person I met on line advised me to start with an outline, but that’s just not me so as I type they appear. Then as I’m going about my day, they rattle around in my head and ideas come that way, and then I can sit and write out the ideas for parts of the story line. Don’t know if I’ll ever get either story done, but it’s been fun so far except for my procrastination on editing.

    I know I’m amazed at your writing and when I’m reading your books, I keep thinking Laurie wrote this and am amazed at how fluently the words go and the story line comes together, and I wonder how did she come up with this and put it all together. Great writing. I’ve yet to read Sliding Past Vertical, but I do have it on my e-bookshelf. 🙂

  2. JD Mader says:

    You know I agree 100%. You captured it well though. I’m always shocked that people don’t think I hate my villains as much as they do. Etc. Really nicely put.

    • laurieboris says:

      Thanks…I know. We are the benevolent dictators, right? But hating them doesn’t mean we don’t love them. Or at least want to show the world why they are the way they are.

  3. dvberkom says:

    Great post, Laurie. I just had a conversation with one of my critique partners where she mentioned that she didn’t like my character particularly in one scene, but that she liked that she didn’t. It made her think. I always try to allow the character to speak/act however she/he ‘tells’ me to write it.

    And the part about being more compassionate b/c of the way a character reveals themselves to you is spot on! Nobody’s perfect and a character shouldn’t be, either. Writing is about discovering the best and worst parts of ourselves and others while still appreciating what we’ve found.

  4. francisguenette says:

    It really is the character imperfections – those I could just slap him or her moments – that make our characters believable. One of my beta readers recently told me – you know what, I get where the guy is coming from and I respect him but I just can’t like him. Hey – that’s okay. You don’t have to like him, you just have to care. Great post.

    • laurieboris says:

      Getting readers to care can be the challenge. This makes me think of the opening to the Jack Nicholson movie, “As Good as it Gets.” He’s cruel to the neighbor’s dog and I hate him. I see him counting steps on the sidewalk and I care.

  5. acflory says:

    Your characters are always compelling, even when you want to scream at them to grow up! lol Sarah was my least favourite character, but she was compelling. Don’t every change your writing style!

  6. Tahlia Newland says:

    Great post, thanks for sharing. I love it when my characters take off and lead the story. I don’t begin writing until I have the basic structure of a story and an idea of how it ends, but when I write, I allow the characters to surprise me.

    • laurieboris says:

      Thank you for visiting, Tahlia. I love when my characters surprise me. I’m a little concerned because I’m trying an experiment with outlining, just to see if I can do it. (cringe)

  7. laurie27wsmith says:

    I often think that I’m nothing more than a scribe for the characters that come out from some alternate universe. They pester you until you write THEIR story.

  8. melparish says:

    A reassuring post. Several readers have told me they wanted to slap my main character (male) in my first book and I have a feeling they are going to say the same about the one in my next book! But surely it has to be a positive sign if they are getting so involved with the character/plot that it is generating these kind of emotions. People are not perfect and characters should not be either.

    Part of the fun of writing is when your characters surprise you – and if they surprise you, they will probably surprise the reader too. I agree with laurie27wsmith that some characters just seem to pester you until you write their story and it deserves to be their story not an edited version purely designed to make them more likeable.

  9. laurieboris says:

    Thank you, Mel, and I certainly hope it’s a good sign! 😀 Some writers may disagree about the likability factor, but if I start with the idea that I have to “make a character people will like,” I get completely bored. And if I’m bored, the reader will be too. In fact, I tried this once, and my critique group basically rolled their eyes and said “next.”

  10. James says:

    Absolutely. Empathy is just as essential when starting from plot. I’ve seen it elevate an irritating, cardboard villain in my stories to well rounded- if problematic!- allies, thereby raising the entire story.

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