Applying the Feedback series: Character

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Over the years, I’ve beta-read many manuscripts and chatted with fellow writers in the query trenches. I’ve noticed there are certain standard lines of feedback I’ve either given in my notes or that people have received from agents.  But sometimes these can be difficult to interpret or apply. So I’ve begun a series of posts on how to go about applying some of the common feedback writers receive on their manuscripts.

Last post, I spoke about character voice and how to improve that area of a manuscript. Today I’m going to be discussing probably the most common specific feedback I see friends get on their manuscript rejections. 

I wasn’t invested in the character/s

First of all I have to acknowledge…ouch! We love our characters, and we are most definitely invested in them! To hear that a reader just doesn’t care is never fun!

But after the initial disappointment of the reaction– the question that often arises is: how do I fix this? What changes do I make in my manuscript to get my readers to care about my characters.

Of course sometimes this is a result of taste or fit. We all have people we like and dislike, and that can happen with characters and readers too. But today I’ll be talking about specific problems in a manuscript that might lead a reader or industry professional to not invest in your character.

Internalisation and emotions

This is far and away the biggest character based issue that I see in manuscripts I read. That we see the character doing and speaking through out the story– but we don’t see them thinking and feeling.

This can lead readers to feel detached because they see things happen to a character without getting a window into how they are affected by those events.

Imagine reading this:

John pressed his lips against mine. They were soft and eager, and I melted into the kiss. He tasted of strawberries and summertime. He pulled away. “I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time.” I grinned. “Me too.”

We know what happened and a little of how it felt to kiss John. We can infer that the speaker is happy. But we have no idea what the kiss actually means to them! Are they shocked? Relieved? Ecstatic? It almost feels dishonest, because we know that the kiss should get an emotional/thought reaction from the character, and it doesn’t appear.

But it’s not just the case for kisses. When something happens to you–you process it. We feel and think and then we react. By skipping the think and feel steps we miss out on the characters motivations, intentions and soul. Characters without their interior-life included feel one dimensional. And after all, a window into the inner workings of a characters mind is one of the great benefits of reading over things like movies and TV. So when it’s missing– we mourn the loss–even if we don’t always understand that a lack of interiority is the culprit.

If readers or industry professionals aren’t connecting to your characters, it could be that you need to include more interiority.

Inconsistencies (Or plot before character problems)

Another big issue that can lead people to not connect with your character is inconsistencies. When characters in our books act in ways that don’t fit who they are–readers will disengage from their stories.

Now, I am not encouraging you to create characters that are one dimensional and predictable. We all have easily connected to multi-faceted protagonist like the nerd with a secret love of heavy metal or the tough guy with a beloved kitty. We like characters with depth and nuance! But this is about when characters act in a way that is contrary to what we know of them.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

-When characters are in a dangerous situation but don’t show any fear.

-When a measured and calm character snaps at another with no provocation or reason behind it.

-When a character falls in love with someone else without any emotional build up.

-When a character we know to be intelligent does something that we as readers know is ridiculously foolish.

In all these scenarios we are pulled from the immersion of the story by our disbelief. And if this continues to happen, we decide we don’t know the character at all.

Part of the reason this happens is because we put the plot or scene needs before who the character is. We think ‘wouldn’t it be shocking if they did this’ or ‘I need them to do X and Y so it’s ready for a future scene’.

But no matter the plot, for characters to feel authentic, they have to act in a way that is true for the personality we’ve built around them. So if people are struggling to connect with your characters, read through their scenes and see if they are being consistent.

But what about surprising our readers with our characters actions? This is still possible! But readers have to understand their motivation, to see why they are acting in ways that are so unusual for them. With proper set up, these kind of moments can be the highlights of the book! When the character who is scared of heights climbs out a window to save the one they love, we see how far they’re come. Or when the patient mother finally snaps at her children, if we’ve layered hints that she is approaching that breaking point, we believe it, and are waiting with bated breath to see the consequences of such an outburst.

If your characters aren’t resonating with readers, it could be internalisation or consistency. But if it’s your MC that is the issue, you might have a specific problem I like to call “The every-person MC”

The ‘Every-person’ Main Character

Have you ever had a situation where readers have raved about your side characters but seem uninvested in your MC? It could be that you are suffering from making your MC too ordinary. Too “every-man” or “every-person” as the case may be.

Often when we start a story we have a premise of what might happen to the MC. And so we build the story around that premise. Then we put together a cast of colourful characters around them.

But we miss a step. We forget that at the heart of a good story is an MC who is engaging and compelling in their own right. They can’t just be interesting because of what happens to them.

This is a classic problem for those starting out in SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy). After-all, the classic ‘chosen one’ or ‘heros journey’ story starts with someone ordinary and unexpected. And lots of the most popular stories in have a character who fits that mould. But pry down into your favourites and you’ll find that they aren’t as ordinary as they seem. Luke Skywalker has wants and needs and a complicated backstory. Frodo is brave and dreams of a life outside the shire, but is going to be tested and changed by every step.

So if readers are saying they don’t connect to your main character, and agents are rejecting based on them, it may be that you have more work to do on the characterisation of your MC. And once you have a compelling protagonist to go with your kick arse premise, there will be no stopping you.

Agency

Linked in with the previous problem is the topic of agency. Agency is where characters are agents in their own lives. They make decisions that affect the direction of the story. Agency is really important for engaging readers in your character.

This doesn’t mean that your character has to be Jason Bourne! It’s not about shoot-outs or actions, or even being a confident character who makes decisions. Sometimes agency can be choosing to survive through hard things. Or choosing not to act and this becomes the catalyst for what happens in the story.

But as readers we need to see the characters decisions playing out in the plot.

A classic example is Katnis Everdeen. In the Hunger Games, it appears at first that Katnis is completely powerless. She is poor, and involved in a fight to the death, with her environment designed to manipulate her. Everything is three steps forward, four steps back. But she makes choices and does things! She puts herself in that position to save her sister. She doesn’t give up when everything is against her.

Compare that to a protagonist who gets dragged along by the plot. Things happen to them but they are reactive, not proactive. It doesn’t actually matter what they learn or how they grow because they aren’t influencing anything. Like a doll being dragged along the ground by the story. It’s hard to be satisfied by books like that.

So if people aren’t responding to your characters, look at your characters agency, to see if that might be part of the cause.

I hope this post has been helpful for you as you think hard about how to make your characters engaging for readers. And if you’ve gotten feedback from agents that they’re not connecting to your character, I hope some or all of these tips might give you direction for your edits.

And for next time…we’ll be looking at …info-dumping!

Series Posts

Applying the feedback: Character Voice

Applying the Feedback Series: Voice

Feedback is a crucial part of a writer’s efforts to grow their craft. I’m sure we’ve all had that moment when someone said something about our writing that pushed it to the next level. Hard to hear but exactly what we needed at that time. Maybe they introduced us to the concept of filter words or deep POV. Maybe they told us that our dialogue sounded like writing and not people talking.  Or maybe they pointed out we were dumping in our world building instead of sprinkling it in. 

But one of the trickiest things when it comes to feedback, is knowing how to apply it. Sometimes you are told something isn’t working– but aren’t sure what you need to do to change that.

This is particularly true when the feedback comes from industry professionals like agents or editors. They often don’t have time to explain why something isn’t working– just that it isn’t.

So to kick off 2022, I’m going to write a series of blog posts on how to apply some of the most common critiques of fiction writing. And this first post relates to the topic of voice.

Voice. That elusive gem of a skill that makes all writers quake. We all know it when it find it– when we read a story and feel like a real flesh and blood person is talking to us and not a character. But how do we manufacture it? What do you do when someone says, “It lacked voice.” Or the dreaded “The voice didn’t grab me.”

Know your character well and make sure your narrative reflects who they are

Who is your character? What do they care about and notice? What lies do they believe and where did they come from? Are they bubbly? Reserved? A smart arse?

So often we can answer all those questions. But if someone was to read a paragraph from that characters POV– none of this would come through. Because we are writing the story as if we personally are riding along with the protagonist describing events, rather than letting the characters voice do it for us.

Let who they are dictate how the story is told. Are they an artist? Then they will likely use highly specific colour names. Are they are builder? Then they might comment on a buildings structure or what materials it’s made of. Are they a kid? Then (unless they are unusually precocious) they won’t use grown up words like…well, precocious.

The first thing to do to work on voice is to get to know your character. Strengthening them will only help your story– and writing as them and not you will start to give them voice. 

Write like your character is speaking to a close friend

Imagine I visited a friend’s new house for the first time. How might I describe it? I might say how many rooms there are, bring up that it’s a corner block and the backyard is small. I might say that it’s brick with cream trimmings.

But how would I talk to my sister about it?

For one thing- I’d draw on our shared experience. Id talk about how it had the homely old-fashion feel of Nan’s place. I’d talk less about the cosmetic details and more about what mattered to me- like how it had a gorgeous fireplace and how much I was looking forward to hanging out with my friend there on cold winter nights.   But I’d also talk about how it made me feel. About how the meticulous condition made me feel like a house-keeping failure or how I nearly cried seeing my friend finally find a home after a rough couple of years.

This isn’t a question of using slang or casual language. It’s a question of intimacy. Part of the beauty of voicey prose is really getting a window into a characters soul. So next time you are struggling with voice- imagine the character speaking to a friend.

It also helps with distance– an issue that will come in another post.

Get Out of your Own Way

Part of the issue I suspect with voice is confidence. We are trained from an early age to write in a formal way. We want our words to sound pretty. We have a narrative style that probably got us A’s through highschool and we don’t want to mess with that.

Writing with our characters voice can be an intimidating change, and can feel awkward when we first try it.

If you suspect you have more voicey prose in you, but are nervous that it will sound weird or wrong, I recommend writing something outside of your story. Maybe a backstory scene. Something that will never makes its way into the story itself, so the pressure is off to make it perfect.

Then, once the voice is settled in your mind and you are comfortable with it, you can go back to your novel and incorporate your new voicey style.

If you can write compelling, voicey dialogue then you can write compelling, voicey narrative. So give yourself permission! Get out of your own way and give it a try!

But sometimes…

But sometimes, sadly, it’s just not a good fit.

Sometimes it’s not that the character lacks voice and that’s why it didn’t grab the agents interest. Sometimes there is voice for days! But just like we all have different taste in books, sometimes we have different taste in voice too.

So if you are confident in your voice and if betas love it, then don’t despair! It might be that the next agent is the one that can’t resist your work.

I hope this post is helpful. And if there is some mysterious feedback that you would like me to cover, please let me know in the comments.