There’s one of those little graphics floating around Facebook at the moment that says: Main Characters: You do everything you can to raise them right, and as soon as they hit the page they do any damn thing they please.
Yes, fellow writers, we can all grin at that because sometimes our main characters do go off and do something that we hadn’t originally planned for them to do, but if we’ve raised them right, i.e. drawn all aspects of their character well enough to make them a fully functioning, three-dimensional person, then whatever they do should arise from the character we’ve created. Whatever they do will be in character. And if it isn’t then we need to go back to the drawing board.
Characters should have not only basic traits but quirks and flaws – consistent ones – and they need vulnerabilities to make them interesting. No one is going to root for a hero who gets it right all the time. A character’s bad decision is often what makes for a good story.
In Empire of Dust (due from DAW in November) Cara Carlinni makes a bad decision – possibly the worst of her life – before the book opens and she spends the rest of the book trying to get out of the mess she’s created. Why did she make that decision? What drove her then and what drives her now?
It took me a while to sort that one out in my head. I knew Cara as a character, all the many different aspects that make her, for me, a real person, but it took listening to a John Tams song (from his fine album, Unity) to suddenly crystallise a central point. Everything was there in the character I’d already drawn, but I hadn’t joined the dots. When I heard the line I had an ‘Oh, of course,’ moment.
The line is: ‘I must be getting easier to leave.’
Of course! That was what drove Cara. Her parents had split up when she was a child. She’d shuttled between them until her father died suddenly and she was dropped back in her mother’s lap. Her mother has had a series of new projects and new men, each one more important to her than the little girl who was always being left behind. Cara grows up and gets a job which sends her scuttling off for long periods (to the other side of the Galaxy, but the character motivation isn’t dependent on the SF setting) and in one traumatic incident she loses a lover, i.e. is left again. So when she’s offered something that looks like stability she grabs it. She puts her trust in the wrong person.
It’s the wrong decision, but getting out is not an option until it becomes the only option.
What happens in the rest of the book follows on naturally from that.