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I am a newbie writer, and I’m trying to write a middle grade novel.  I could use some advice on characterization, and resources particularly. The problem is that while I have a clearly defined sense of the supporting characters in the story, plot and themes of the story,  the main character is a bit of a cipher.  I can’t seem to think of him in terms other than the events that happened to him and the people who are around him. I’ve tried thinking about a backstory for the character, but he doesn’t seem to really feel real, a bit forced.  Any advice for a beginning writer? Any resources that you might suggest?
#1 - December 05, 2020, 07:34 PM

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:welcome Jane. Like you, I tend to be plot driven. But I've found that my characters deepened with every revision because I kept returning to the question why. Some books I've found very helpful in developing my characters:
Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card (when I was a newbie)
Stein on Wring by Sol Stein
Emotional Craft of Fiction by Don Maass (read just a couple of years ago, so at apprentice stage)
and of course, many wonderful books with unforgettable characters, too many to name. Happy reading and writing.
#2 - December 06, 2020, 06:59 AM
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This is a really good question and one I struggle with sometimes, too. Just the other day I had to unplug and take a walk, listen to music that went with my character, and just ponder why he was the way he was as I walked. I tried to put myself in a small scene that happened to him in the past and feel through what he wanted and what he was ignorant of that came up and slapped him in the face. I pondered  what his wants and desires caused him to do, and what the reaction (positive and negative) was on the people around him, and how that ultimately came back to affect him.  I second the resources Vijaya mentioned, and I almost feel like some acting resources might be helpful as well. What do actors do when they have to figure out how to inhabit a character who is new to them? Those kinds of things would be helpful for writers trying to figure out their main characters, too.

(But oy, why is it sometimes so much easier to figure out the side characters than the main character??)
#3 - December 06, 2020, 07:14 AM

I have a problem getting a handle on my main character too.  Besides doing character charts and questionnaires, the thing that helps me  get into their head the most is having them write in a diary  in their voice for a week  (usually before I start writing the novel) and this seems to flesh out who they are, what matters to them,  and what they're going through on a daily basis,. Good luck.
#4 - December 06, 2020, 09:53 AM

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I struggle with plot more than characterization, but there is always something to learn. I attended a lecture once where the presenter said to think of just one word to describe your character. I couldn't do it with my MC, but I could with one of my side characters. The word I thought of was "hungry." She was a girl with money, prestige, and friends - a genuinely nice person - but she was hungry for some of the family comforts that her less financially blessed friend enjoyed. This opened an aspect to her that I hadn't explored before and let me have a little fun with the concept of hunger. This character dated the guy who never stopped eating. She was in charge of food at every event. She suggested going to lunch whenever she could. Just fun little things. Probably no one else would even notice, but it was a subtle addition to character and the ms.
#5 - December 06, 2020, 10:03 AM

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I'd also suggest Donald Maass's WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL.

I think it can help to play twists-and-turns with your character. What is he basically? Let's say a popular athlete. Twist-and-turn: what if he's injured and can't play anymore? What does he do then? Turns out he's interested in music but never really had the chance to play bc of sports. So now he takes up guitar. Do his friends support this? What happens to him socially? He stays popular? Okay, twist-and-turn: what if he makes a friend at the music studio who's the brother of last year's school shooter? What if his guitar teacher is the disliked principal and neither wants to acknowledge each other outside of the studio? And on and on.

It can really help to go through everything you know about your character and flip it. Doesn't mean you have to write it that way, but the what ifs can really enrich your understanding of the person--and help to keep you away from stock figures.

Another thing that's helpful is to think of what your character most needs (their BFF, car, job, parental support, etc.) and then take it away. That works well for plot, but their reaction can tell you a lot about character. And simply living with the person for a while (in your head) helps. The brilliant novels are often the ones that were revised 49 times and took a decade to write. Most of us can't/won't do that, but there is some value to letting a character age in the oak cask of your noggin'.
 :goodluck
#6 - December 06, 2020, 10:30 AM
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This is my personal process, so it may not work for you. But then again, it might  ;)

Before starting, I model the character after someone I know or knew. As the first drafting progresses, I retain this model and remind myself of the living person. It can be a family member, someone my kids or I knew when that age, or a neighbor etc. Never a celebrity, (that isn't "knowing," that's a superficial and produced image) but someone I have observed and had close contact with.

One of the difficulties with MC, I think, is that they somehow must be heroic in their ultimate choices. We know very few people personally that model this, especially at the age the MC for which we write. So at certain points we will be surprised and entertained by the MC doing things the model likely wouldn't. It's a rewarding "what if" journey.
#7 - December 06, 2020, 12:20 PM
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Reading through the responses I'm thinking of Lisa Cron's Story Genius because it's so organic and matches the way I think of how plot and characters are inextricably linked. I write small stories--there's no saving the world, perhaps just a puppy. She has a really good way to think about the backstory. I wrote a review of her book here: https://vijayabodach.blogspot.com/2016/10/story-genius-by-lisa-cron.html
#8 - December 06, 2020, 04:47 PM
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I am so, so, grateful for this thread! I had posted with some anxiety thinking that nobody had the problem that I had, and that my question wouldn’t make sense. What a relief!  Thank you for all of the wonderful suggestions and for pointing  me in the right direction!  I feel liberated to move forward!
#9 - December 06, 2020, 07:24 PM

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Adding another suggestion. I take my main character (or any character with me wherever I go). So if I were at the grocery store with my main character, what would we talk about? What would they want to buy? Can they afford it? What would they do when that old guy passes with his mask off his nose? Or if someone grabbed a handful of grapes from one of the bags? How do they see the new girl bagging groceries? We learn about people from how they react to others. I do this for every place I go.

For some things, I have to ask: What would bring my main character here? We all need food, but we don't all need to see the podiatrist, for example. So why might this character end up in this office? Eventually, I take myself out of the situation and have the main character with other characters or alone. Some of these ideas may even make it into a story or the actual backstory of my book.

You can also ask where they were ten minutes before and will be ten minutes after and why.
#10 - December 06, 2020, 08:28 PM
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