Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Character Vulnerability

Just got another rejection, sigh, which was pretty devastating because this particular manuscript, THE BRICKLAYER'S HELPER, is particularly near-and-dear to me.  It's one of those rare stories that just flowed and where you felt like you finally got everything right.  The best you've ever written.  And I just love the story.

It's one of those masquerade, murder-mystery, adventure stories laced with a liberal dose of humor.  Or at least that's what I think it is. :-)

Obviously, others disagree, which can be really, really discouraging if you feel that it is the best you've written--or may ever write.  To be honest, it hit me really hard.  It make me think, yet again, about quitting.

Be that as it may.

After a couple of days of thinking about it, I'm thinking I need to do a few tweaks in the first few chapters.  Generally, my biggest flaws are always in the first few chapters.  Once the story gets going, it runs pretty well.  But I have a hard time starting out.  Mostly, I have to completely rip out the first few chapters.

All of this is sort of a digression--in a way.  What I think I really have to do, though, is something I'm always somehow reluctant to do: expose my character's vulnerabilities.  Because this is what makes people reject manuscripts: they don't find the characters compelling.

This is difficult for me as a writer for a number of reasons.

  First and foremost, I feel like my characters do show their vulnerability, but I don't spell it out.  I write something like:  She turned her back on her husband, picked up the cast iron frying pan, and banged it down on the stove.  To me, that clearly shows she is angry.  So I don't want to laboriously explain.  And if this follows an entire scene where she has been arguing with her husband, and if he has said ugly things to her, I also figure the reader will know that the woman is both hurt and angry.

But does the reader really know that?  Perhaps.  Or maybe...not so much.  Even the most astute reader needs a little help now-and-again to interpret actions and even words, because they can generally be taken in multiple ways.  Maybe the woman banged the frying pan down because it was hot.  Or because her wrist gave out.  Maybe she's not angry--she's tired and hurt.

I've finally realized that you do need to insert a few words, here and there, to let the reader know what the characters are feeling.  I've been wary of doing this because I loathe over-writing and am terrified I will become entrapped by flowery, angst-ridden purple-prose.

Unfortunately, my first draft therefore has nothing spelled out.  So I get rejections a lot if I forget this lesson.  Then, I realize my problem and go back in and add bits of emotion...or I try to, but at this point, I also tend to overreact and put in too much navel gazing and explanations.  I have a hard time finding the happy medium.

 My other problem is that frequently, my characters are trying to hide their vulnerabilities and I let them.  So they hide their fears from the reader behind a smart remark and a laugh.

EXPOSE THEIR FEARS.  Big lesson I tend to forget.  One of the best ways to earn reader sympathy for your character is to show some chink in their armor, some vulnerable side, a fear, an Achilles heel.  If your heroine is a tough chick, give her a spider to fear.  Well, that's a bad example because it's totally overused.  But you get the point.

So now I need to go back to The Bricklayer's Helper and just add a sentence or phrase to show poor Sarah's deepest, darkest fear.  She actually has a lot of fear and she's become a master at redirection and suppression, but the dark pit is there within her.  I just have to expose it to give her character depth.  Because she's too good to let go into that long goodnight without putting up a fight to get her story published.

I'm off to the land of rewrites, dictionaries, and angst.

Sweet Dreams!


Sonja Foust said...

So sorry to hear about the rejection. Their loss, I'm sure.

In any case, I'm sure your edits will be brilliant. I have a hard time with how much emoting I should do in my manuscripts too. An editor actually wrote, "That's very dramatic," one time in the margins, but most of the time, I get comments on the opposite end of the spectrum. "I have no idea how she feels about such-and-such."

A neat trick I've found is that if the heroine doesn't even know how she feels, you can use that. If you have a tough girl who thinks she's being tough, but, you know, she's crying inside, you can do something like they did in The Holiday with Cameron Diaz's massive heartburn attacks that turned out to be a substitute for crying. I find that even if I feel fine, I'll know I'm stressed out by the signals my body gives. Your body doesn't really do "tough girl."

Anyway, hope everything goes well with it, and don't give up!

Amy said...

I agree--but then you actually have to explain that the heartburn is a substitute for crying. So one way or the other, you have to explain. :-)

I'm trying to make lemons into lemonade. We'll see if I can do it successfully. There is another contract (novella) on the horizon but I don't want to goober it up by talking about it before everyone signs on the dotted line.