Swoon Author Karole Cozzo: But They Don’t Know You Like I Know You
A quick Google search for “character development tools” will bring up a myriad of options. Some are worksheets a single page in length, focusing on the basics – eye color, profession, hobbies. Others are several pages in length, including nebulous questions such as “What is it that your character needs that he or she doesn’t know they need?” Then of course there’s Chris Vogler’s character-focused interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s infamous hero’s journey, including intimidating stages such as “refusal of the call” and “the resurrection” that can seem challenging, if not downright impossible, to apply to teenage heroines in YA romance.
When I start a new project, I tend to pick and choose and pull from a variety of formats and certainly spend some time getting “the facts” about my characters down on paper. But the ultimate breath of life is bestowed upon them in my head. Before I’ve even typed “Chapter 1” into a blank Word document, I’ve spent hours – lying in bed in the middle of the night, waiting for my gas tank to fill at Sunoco, standing in line at Target – fleshing out my characters until they feel real to me, until I know them well beyond their basic stats I’ve jotted down. In fact, I can’t really start writing until I do, until I know who my characters are, the people that are more than the sum of their parts. And as a novel is written, as the characters and their stories take on a life of their own, I come to know them even better. By the end, often they’ve surprised me, angered me, perhaps made me cry, they’ve made me laugh. I’ve been disappointed by their decisions, but ultimately I’ve ended up cheering for their successes.
By the time I’ve typed the final period, my characters have become real to me. I know them inside and out. And typically, it’s become real easy to forget that everyone else reading my story…does not.
Which brings me (finally) to the editing process. I was definitely surprised when I received my first official edit letter from the incomparable Holly West to discover it did not focus on major plot elements, chronic grammatical errors, or bits of dialogue she didn’t think worked. Rather, the bulk of her comments focused on my characters – who they were and the relationships between them. And perhaps more importantly, how they might be perceived by the readers.
Initially, I may have been a bit miffed that my characters were even questioned. What do you mean some readers might not like my main character? Honestly, how could anyone read her as heartless, selfish, or shallow? Were we talking about the same person here? What exactly could a reader miss?
This is when I first realized it’s real easy to forget that your readers don’t know your main character (or secondary characters) half as well as you do. Not a quarter, not an eighth, not a sixteenth as well as you do. Chances are, what you know of your main character in Chapter 1, Page 1 is greatly influenced by what you know of where your character will be at the end of the story. As the author, you’re biased.
And if you consider your stories to fall more within the character-driven sector than the plot-driven sector, as I do, you face a particular challenge. With plot-driven stories, it’s all in the open, on the page – plot twists, action, and external conflict are the name of the game. Not so much with character-driven stories, when everything is often times more subtle – attitudes, decisions, and evolutions, which you hope to convey to your readers without having to point out the major themes and lessons in boldface and underlined. If you drop the ball in any way when trying to paint a picture with your words of who your character is, the intent behind the action, the truth in their hearts, you may come to find that readers dismiss your entire story from the get-go because your main character rubs them the wrong way and they simply don’t care to read his or her story.
This being said, obtaining feedback on and hearing perceptions of my characters has come to be the most critical and valuable part of the editing process to me. While it can be difficult to hear up front some negative opinions of a person/character you’ve come to care so much about, ultimately, this is your second chance to make a first impression, and you’re wise to take heart to what others have to say. My initial instinct was to defend my character – in conversations, emails, there was the temptation to respond to negative comments with a passionate rebuttal. However, it is not the duty of a writer to defend his or her characters after the fact; it is his or her duty to capture characters so eloquently and wholly within the story that such a defense is unnecessary. And even so, it will be impossible to please everyone. Just like living, breathing people, no single character will be embraced by every single reader. At the end of the day, the best you can hope for is that your readers will at least come to understand and even better, respect your character, like them or not.
So now, a couple years into the process, I’ve embraced much more of a “give it to me straight” attitude about my characters during the multiple rounds of editing. I relish the chance to learn at which points I failed to bring them to life, to convey their intentions. It will forever be better to hear these comments in a single edit letter than many times over in reviews of a finished novel. A reader may never come to know my characters as well as I do, but hopefully, after the editing process, I’ve done a better job of forging that relationship so that you can, and most importantly, so that you want to know them – human, flawed, and all.