A Lack of Character

I’m trying to start a regular writing program again, using the simple steps laid down by writing mage Chuck Wendig. I’ve racked my brains, finally came up with a  good concept or three or four.But once again, I’ve run into the same problem that has plagued my writing for a good decade.

I can write descriptive prose. I can write witty and concise dialogue. I prefer my work to be tight and punchy, not flowery bile. I can come up with plot threads, and a supporting cast that rivals a good RPG session. What I cannot do, for all the tea in Gaiman’s cupboard, is come up with a main character.

If someone would ever ask me what the main symptom of too much Game Mastering would be, it would be this. I spent years coming up with things for my players to do, and react to. But I was never much for being on the other side of the coin.

It’s very hard for me to admit this problem, and even more embarrassing to admit I have no idea what to do about it. All of my main characters have been mostly Mary Sue pastiches of myself.

So  I am throwing it out to you, writers of the universe. If anyone’s got an idea on how to fix this, please rant at me, smack me with a book ,or anything.

3 thoughts on “A Lack of Character

  1. First, it’s so great to hear you’re back to writing regularly! Woo!

    I guess I’d say to go back one layer and try to figure out why your character is reacting to stuff in a particular way.

    I remember when I was writing the first Roswell High book I had Liz, the main character, wanting to be valedictorian. She was an over-achiever. She was also eager to get out of town after she graduated. For me, those were all elements of her character. Then Laura Burns, my editor (friend, and later writing partner) asked why she wanted to be valedictorian, etc.

    I hadn’t really thought of that. She wanted it because I said she wanted it. So I thought about why she’d want it. You said your characters are often pastiches of yourself, but I think it’s okay to draw from your own experience, and that’s what I did to answer this question. I wasn’t an over-achiever at all. I was a keep fairly invisible type. But I did have a quality I thought I could use for Liz. I never wanted my parents to worry about me. Before I was born I had a brother who died in the car accident. I thought my parents had gone through enough.

    So I decided to give Liz a sister who had died of an overdose, and make her very motivated by wanting to constantly prove to her parents that they had nothing to worry about as far as she was concerned. I made that the motivation under wanting to be valedictorian. And also, really, about wanting to leave town after grad. Trying to be perfect like that can be a strain.

    I think finding the underlying motivations for the way a character acts is a big part of character development, and that comes from backstory, I think.

    I also think you know a lot about why people act the way they do, and you can use that.

  2. P.S. I’m now thinking you’ve probably heard me give that example before. Sorry. In a different book, I had a smart kid think he was stupid because he had dyslexia. It impacted the way he acted toward a girl he liked because he felt unworthy.

  3. Honest to goodness, I used to have a notebook for of just character descriptions. I was always better at setting up a character to use than I was at writing a whole story. So I’m the flipside of you here.

    But anytime I had an idea, I’d scribble it down. A page a character. Usually I’d pick out the name first and let the name tell me what to do. I always built my character based on the feeling I got from the name. Once that was down I’d piece things together. Like, character A has an outgoing personality, and then like a psychologist, I’d work backwards to get to the root cause of that trait. They’re outgoing because character A has a large family, or uses it to cover how anxious they really are because of life event xyz.

    I guess I get pretty complex with my characters, but in essence I write their story before I write the story they’re in.

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