There’s one of those little graphics floating around Facebook 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. However, 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. Their actions and exploits will be in character. And if they aren’t, 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 as long as you follow it through to its logical conclusion.
In Empire of Dust (DAW 2014), the first book in my Psi-Tech trilogy, 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 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 one bad decision.
Sometimes what a character wants is to get out of the situation she finds herself in through no fault of her own. In my Rowankind novels, Ross Tremayne is backed into a corner by events in her family’s past. She’s given a quest, which she tries to ignore. She’s bounced around by fate (on land and at sea) but it’s not until she accepts the responsibility that’s fallen to her that she becomes proactive and takes charge of her own future. Ross doesn’t want the quest, but she needs it, and it changes her life (eventually for the better).
The problems often occur when a supporting character tries to take over. That happened to me when I was writing Empire of Dust. Max kept trying to get more page time. I liked him as a character, but his antics were distracting me from the forward thrust of the main story (Cara’s and Ben’s). I had to cut out about five chapters of Max’s shenanigens. You really have to keep a tight rein on some of the characters. They can so easily run away with a story.