If you’ve been following along with my NaNoPlotMo posts, you’re probably working out the goals for each of your characters. Maybe you’re even on to the story beats that you’ll assign to each character’s goals. This is another good place to hit the pause button and take a look at your protagonist.
Is she still the most interesting character in your cast? Does his job seem a bit ho-hum? Here’s a quick test: if you had to spend a year with no other person but your protagonist, would that feel you with great anticipation or horrifying despair?
The reason I prefer outlining over pantsing is that outlining gives you one opportunity after another to make major story changes without discarding hundreds of pages of typed words. As we cruise into the final week before NaNoWriMo, take these opportunities to ask yourself if the story still works. Do not, my friends, do not push through a plot because of this self-imposed deadline of November 1st. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t think I’ll be ready myself. I’ll try. But I will not waste words and my time just to participate in a month long type-fest. Neither should you.
Okay. Back to your protagonist. If you still like her, but think maybe she needs to be more interesting, here are a few things you can do:
Write some backstory for you character. Not general stuff. Pick a point in her life that changed her. Preferably her Dark Moment. The Dark Moment is what shapes our future. It usually coincides with the Big Lie (for more info on this go to www.MyBookTherapy.com and, by all means, join the free Monday night chats). The Big Lie is what your character believes that keeps her from attaining her goals.
Example: Your character is a girl who grew up with a mother who had a long line of live in boyfriends. Your character’s dark moment may have come when she needed money to get away from home and the most recent live in boyfriend made her “earn” it. Her dark moment was surrendering her purity to this guy so she could get away from guys like him and her mother. Her Big Lie (here’s the irony…we LOVE irony) is that she can only get ahead by using her body. For the next five years, she does exactly that.
Whoa! See that? In just a couple of lines, you ho-hum middle class housewife, now twenty years after her Dark Moment, is a much more interesting character. Imagine her dropping her own daughter off at dance class, chatting with the other moms about kids, church, and their husbands. All the while holding onto this horrible past that she prays no one will ever discover. Think that secret will impacter her marriage? Her job? Her self-confidence?
A bit of backstory, specifically when it focusses on the Dark Moment and Big Lie, will always boost your protagonists interest to your readers, even if the readers are never told the details. They’ll perceive something is going on beneath the surface.
WC Fields wouldn’t work with dogs for a good reason: they’re often more interesting than the main character. But if you use your protagonist’s pet correctly, they can become an extension of your character.
Example: In Liar Liar, Jim Carrey’s character has a dog who refuses to be house-trained. This is Carrey’s Personal Goal, to house train the dog. And, of course, this goal ties into the movie’s moral premise, just like the main story line does. The dog does steal a couple of scenes, but that’s okay. The pooch’s real job is to show Carrey–and the audience–how his master’s self-serving behavior destroys every aspect of his life, even to the point of a puddle on the floor.
Writer’s have always used animals to add depth to their protagonists. A dog also allows for a lot of interior monologue to be voiced. A scene of introspection by your protag can get a bit dull. But have him tell his troubles to his Great Dane, and it livens the scene up a notch or two.
My brother, who writes screenplays, sent me his latest to peruse. It’s a bit dark, a post-apocalyptic setting in Chicago. His protagonist is a detective working on a recent murder. After watching this guy wander in his apartment for a few scenes, reflecting on the dank, depressing scene out his window, I finally wrote my brother and said, “Can you give this guy a hobby? He’s depressing me.” I suggested, since nothing seemed to grow in my brother’s setting, that his protagonist, this tough post-apocalyptic cop, try to grow roses on the roof of his building. Bingo! Our character has life.
Everybody has a hobby. But, like the pet, choose something that will reflect who your character is. In the classic The Long Long Trailer, Lucille Ball’s character collected rocks from each place they visited. Lucy wanted to see America, but she wanted concrete evidence that she’d been there. She needed something she could pick up, heft, and revisit these locations in her mind. This says something about her character. And the irony? A woman who wants something solid and permanent has chosen to wander all over America with her husband and a travel trailer. Yes, a movie made for Lucy and Desi.
Those are just a few examples. The backstory should be your first choice if you haven’t already done it while developing your characters. What about you? What other ideas do you have to spice up a lackluster character?