Lately I have been feeling very despondent about my characters. For me as I write, they are right there, talking, laughing. I can see their faces and their clothes, I can know what they are thinking and why they do what they do.
But this does not seem to translate well on the page. Two people who I love and trust as editors have both told me individually, regarding more than one piece of writing, that my characters are generic, could be any girl or boy, don’t have any life or motivation, are soppy.
This both angered and shocked me. Of course, whenever anyone criticises any tiny bit of my work, I am always angry at first. My perfect work? Are you mad?
But if I let myself indulge in my crossness for a little while then I am able to return to the critique with a more open mind and let their suggestions and notes in.
This time, though, shock was also there. I could not believe that my characters, so real to me, are so wooden on the page. What was I doing or not doing? I had to sit down and really try to read my work from the point of view of someone who did not know it. That’s hard!
Interestingly enough, the comment was made that my secondary characters were well rounded and believable. It was just my heroes and heroines that needed a lightning bolt to bring them to life.
So I guess that’s a point to the good.
Now I am letting those particular pieces of work rest awhile while I work on other things. But I know that when I go back to them I must somehow translate what I see to what the reader can see.
It reminds me of some long-ago acting lessons I did in which, no matter how much I was able to feel the character’s internal struggles in my own head, I was never able to portray them to the audience in a believable way. Why not? I did not study acting long enough to analyse but I suspect that there is something similar going on with my writing. And it must be dealt with if I am to grow as a writer and reach a new level of ability.
This is no bad thing. The challenge of improving every day as a writer is a wonderful one. I am glad to think that my work in ten years time will be better by far than my work of today. I just hope that my work of today is good enough to be published! If I think about some of my favourite authors, whose books I devoured from the very first right through the series, I can see something similar at work there. Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, while enjoyable, is not as good a book as, say Night Watch. And his characters, especially in this instance Sir Samuel Vimes, are almost stick figures in comparison with their later fine detail. Anne McCaffrey’s early Pern books are equally lacking in dimension compared to her later ones. It’s no criticism; the later books have a whole, developed universe to rely on so they cannot help but be fuller in detail and context.
I hope that one day my characters will be as familiar and visible to the reader as Granny Weatherwax, Sam Vimes and Nanny Ogg. I hope that my readers half love and half hate the idea of my books being made into film or TV, knowing that their self-created mental image of the characters will be altered forever by the visual medium. And perhaps I should leave it there before my daydreams run away with me.