*My friend Peter Grant offered me this guest post, and of course I jumped at it. As I’m going through a slew of character building experiences, and yes, this will translate into writing at some point. But letting your characters grow and improve is also a problem, and I enjoyed Peter’s view of it.*
They say dealing with problems is character-building. I say dealing with characters is a problem!
Last year I published three books: the first two novels in a military science fiction series, ‘Take The Star Road’ and ‘Ride The Rising Tide’, and a memoir of prison chaplaincy, ‘Walls, Wire, Bars and Souls’. I’d planned to publish a fourth book, the third novel in the SF series, but beta readers of the manuscript came back with some very trenchant suggestions for changes. Furthermore, feedback from reader reviews of the first two novels on Amazon.com suggested that I needed to improve my characterization, and incorporate more conflict so as to make my protagonist less of a ‘golden boy’.
This was problematic for me in many ways – and for several readers as well. It seemed to me that reactions to my first two novels varied according to the background of the reader. Those varying reactions, and how I’ve been trying to respond to them, have taught (and are teaching) me a lot about the craft of writing. I thought others might find the process interesting.
First, I’ve been annoyed by a great many military SF books that are quite obviously written by people who have no military background themselves (or, if they have some military background, don’t have combat experience). It shows very clearly. I wanted to write in a way that was true to military life, recognizable by those who’ve ‘been there and done that’ whilst also informative and educational for those considering volunteering for military service. I think I’ve largely succeeded in that (at least thus far). For example, one beta reviewer of Volume 3 said (paraphrased): “The protagonist’s actions are instructive in themselves and I wish I’d read some of this before I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant; I’d never have made a particular mistake. Expensive lesson. Hopefully, some young reader will remember your lessons as performed by the protagonist.”
However, some (not all) of those who don’t have a military background appeared to find that aspect of my writing boring, or frustrating, or not germane to the plot. I had to figure out how to write in such a way as to retain the interest of both groups without losing the practical, real-world focus I was looking for. This wasn’t helped by some of the comments on Amazon, many of which were positive, but several of which were negative – often in ways I couldn’t precisely identify. They often contradicted each other. For example, from five reader reviews of ‘Ride The Rising Tide’:
- “The characters are good, the plot is well developed, and a lot of pleasure is here.”
- “… in the third book, I definitely hope he fleshes out his main character much more and makes him a more three dimensional person. I’d also like a lot more plot development that doesn’t seem like a perfunctory effort at getting out a sequel.”
- “The second book took a character I related to, and liked, and grew him into a character I’m excited about, care about, and want to see how he progresses.”
- “I have to say I was disappointed by the story. The action is limited, the dialogue is more about how things work rather than building up character development.”
- “Good characters well developed in a great story. Who could ask for more.”
With such contradictory perspectives, it was difficult for this relatively inexperienced author to figure out how (and what) to improve in Book 3.
One of my beta readers, who provided a stellar, thorough, in-depth critique that pulled no punches and was (I think) very accurate, picked up both positive and negative aspects of my protagonist. I think she summed up what a number of my readers were trying to express when she said (again, paraphrased): “The protagonist’s ‘perfection’ makes the outcomes predictable: there is an incident, danger is involved, but the reader can rest assured he will come riding to the rescue (his ‘steed’ being his ability to always come up with the perfect solution), and he will get an award of some sort. Yes, we get it: he is the good guy. As I said before: a little TOO good.”
On the other hand, when I broached the subject on my Amazon author forum of developing my protagonist’s character and making him less of a ‘golden boy’, a reader responded: “I’m sad to hear this. Please remember that sometimes a person can just kick butt and get everything right. Sometimes people are happy! Sometimes the good guy wins for heck sake. /sigh I await the hammer to drop.”
I had to find a way to ‘improve’ my protagonist’s character and make him more interesting without putting off those who liked him as he was. I therefore tried to learn more about character development and conflict. I found these two books particularly helpful:
- ‘Elements of fiction Writing – Characters and Viewpoint’ by Orson Scott Card;
- ‘Write Great Fiction – Plot and Structure’ by James Scott Bell.
However, both were also frustrating, in the sense that I didn’t fully identify with the approach of either author. Reading further afield, I found even more disagreement between other authors and these two. It’s quite a dilemma for a novice author. Who to believe? Whose advice to follow?
I eventually came to the realization that I’d have to develop my own approach. Whilst it would incorporate ‘lessons learned’ from those who’d walked the writing path before me, it would be a synthesis of their views, my own personality and way of expressing myself, and the life my characters and series took on for themselves. (They do appear to have minds of their own that way!) I certainly wouldn’t be able to get it 100% right in a single book. My approach would therefore be to deliver the best story and characterization I could in Maxwell Volume 3, then improve it further in Volume 4, then improve on Volume 4 in Volume 5, and so on ad nauseam.
I’m now into my second revision of the manuscript of Volume 3 since my beta readers submitted their reviews. I won’t pretend I’m altogether happy with the result (yet). It’s been frustrating to try to envision my protagonist through the eyes of others and see how he can be improved, but I’m plugging away at it. I hope to have the book ready for publication by the end of January 2014, if all goes well. I don’t want to delay publication much beyond that, because that would be fiddling for fiddling’s sake. I’m mindful of the old proverb that ‘The best is the enemy of good enough’, and if I fiddle forever, I’ll never be able to write Volume 4! Rather, I have to do the best job I can right now, get Volume 3 out there, learn from reader feedback, and incorporate that into the next book.
I’m sure many of you have faced precisely the same problem in your own writing. I’d love to hear from you in Comments about how you tackled it. Hopefully we can learn from each other’s experience.
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