CHARACTERS: When Readers Dump You

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I love this photo of Half Moon Bay, and the only reason it exists is because I got so seasick, my brother made me get off his boat.

So you’re absolutely sure you have a compelling, unique,specific Main Character (MC) who can lead a reader through your story.

Chapter One is like the first few dates in which the reader gets to know MC (and you!) through voice and thoughts and perhaps some conflict. The whirlwind courtship hopefully ends in an exchange of promises.

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The reader promises to read the rest of MC’s (and your) story. You (and your MC) promise to be as truthful and clear as you can in recounting events so they make sense.

But if you’re getting comments from your Betas or friends that some things are “confusing” or “don’t make sense” in regards to your Protagonist, you might be breaking those promises.

Here are two common ways that promise is broken:
Change in Character Voice
Out-of-Character Moment

I see the Change in Character Voice most often in Portal Fantasy, when a character from “our real world” goes through a portal or somehow gets transported into a fantasy realm. (However, it can happen in any genre, usually due to a huge gap in Real World time between writing chapters, like doing the first half of the book, taking a long break, then finishing it.)

For now, let’s look at the portal fantasy example. In chapter one, MC was a Californian, perhaps saying things like “Dude was totes ice about me slumping in on his Betsy.” (Translation: The man was very angry when I complimented his girlfriend.) Or thinking things like “We had to drive two hours in the middle of bum-f*ck nowhere, past stinky brown fields of future steaks, to get to the stupid town that smelled like week-old Taco Bell and had no free wi-fi.”

But as soon as he’s ported over to fantasy realm, suddenly he thinks things like “The green valley stretched towards the horizon like a gossamer gown of emerald lace. Vermillion banners, embossed with an iridescent sapphire glyph, were hung across the parapets and barbicans spanning the ancient footbridge.”

That extreme example seems like a no-duh no-no, but check your WIP for instances where your MC starts talking and thinking in a way which doesn’t match your character 5×5.

Can you match that scene to an answer of one of those five questions: Who is your character? What profession/social class is your character? Why is your character the Point of View through which you’re showing that particular scene at that particular moment? Etc.
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The example violates the “What is your character?” question and should be changed, which might indicate a drastic revision for the whole story to maintain the promise of your Character’s Voice.

It’s not going to be as simple as going back to chapter one and saying “oh, by the way, California dude studied castles in college.” The information he knows might be believable, but not the drastic change in his voice. You might have to go back and carve in some foreshadowing about the change in how he thinks in order to make the change itself believable, tone down the differences, or stretch the change so it’s more gradual.

Another ways to lose Character Voice, reaching for familiar cliches or lack of realistic descriptions:

MC is a farm boy or sorcerer in a fantasy realm and describes another character eviscerating someone “with the precision of a surgeon” or leaping off a building “with the grace of Jeremy Lin.”

Or MC is a surgeon and describes a scalpel as “the pointy thing next to the whirlygig.”

Caveat! Don’t over edit and make the Character’s voice monotone. People have different ways of speaking in different contexts. For example, a classic noble-born medieval fantasy hero traditionally speaks with a different register and uses different words when speaking with “commoners” versus with superiors. A Young Adult will speak differently to his or her parents, versus with peers, versus with teachers or a cop who pulls him over.

Keep your 5×5 card handy. Refer to it. If the Character’s Voice, reactions, and dialogue within the scene are faithful to your list of answers, the issue might not be the Character but a different aspect (plot hole, description clarity) of the scene.

The Out-of-Character moment usually happens later in the story, when the MC literally acts in a way which takes him out of the role he’s been filling. I’m not talking about a character acting a little differently from a stereotype or trope, like a good guy stealing an apple or a bad guy petting a dog.

Nor am I talking about the Character surprising us, like choosing to pursue Best Friend through Forest of Evil instead of chasing after Love Interest to Ends of the Earth.

It’s when the Character does something with no explanation for his motives, as if everything that would explain why he chooses not to pursue Best Friend or save Love Interest and instead goes home and knits a sweater happened off screen or in a scene you deleted.

Perhaps you never wrote the scene. Perhaps that scene is in your head, so it makes perfect sense to you why your Main Character goes home to knit the sweater. Perhaps several chapters later you reveal that the sweater is actually a cloning device which will allow Main Character to be in two places at once, thereby saving both Best Friend and Love Interest.

If you didn’t foreshadow this, if you didn’t show enough of his planning or thought process, if you didn’t even hint at the possibility that this could be done, if none of the other characters comment on MC being “different,” you’ve broken your promise to the reader to be as truthful as possible. You’re being coy and sacrificing the reader’s trust in order to have a surprise.

It doesn’t read as “ooh, surprise!” It reads as “Damn writer doesn’t know what he or she is doing.”

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You can’t be behind every reader’s shoulder, whispering “keep going, I totally explain why he does this in the next chapter.”

In your WIP, try to foreshadow, try to plant clues, try to be truthful.

Lastly, here’s a list of some situations which may cause abrupt changes in Character Voice or cause Out-of-Character moments. Check with your Betas to see if you or your Main Characters break your promises.

Love Interest Totally Reciprocates Feelings (usually ties up storylines, and might literally weaken Main Character.)

Heinous Act Pushing MC Past Point of No Return (Plot point forces Heroic MC to act in a traditionally un-Heroic manner, ie. killing an innocent, infidelity, usurpation of a throne, cheating on an exam.)

Virtuous Act Pushing Ancient Evil Past Point of No Return (Plot point forces baddie to act in a WTF way, usually as an attempt to humanize or garner sympathy for baddie, ie. saving Hero’s Love Interest’s life, not completely killing Hero’s BFF.)

Team Win! (Plot point forces Hero and Villain to work together to save the world, save Prom, save a puppy. Are they only too glad to be working together at long last? Do they bounce back to original roles, or did you create new ones for them?)
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For your WIP, the best way to see how successful you are in keeping your promises is to first go through the story with your 5×5 card or with your character interviews. Then, have some Betas go through it – without the aid of your 5×5 and answers – and check where your message gets garbled.

Characters – people – naturally change and in real life, we don’t always know or understand why. But in a story, whose main goal is to be understood, drastic changes without plausible explanation can hurt your story’s credibility and your credibility as a writer.


As always, you can reach me via comments below, Twitter (@JoanWIP), and my new Facebook page. Show the love by sharing this post.

And today (December 21, 2015) is the last day the book with my short stories is on sale for only $2.99!  That’s half off the usual price! That works out to only 30¢ a story! Makes a great gift for fans who like Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Literary, ghost stories, mini-mysteries, and Self-Rescuing Heroines.

Also a great gift for commuters and flyers and anyone who enjoys short fiction.



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