Going to Character Rehab
This is a particularly me-centric confession, which I always feel a little awkward about. But that is what confession week is for, I guess. Anyway, I hope this post will help someone else currently struggling with writing a difficult character.
I must confess: I’ve been working on and off on THE IRON KEY sequence since 2004. But I never loved my protagonist, Sahrel, until earlier this week. How is that even possible? It all seems very forehead-slapping in retrospect, but you know, everyone makes mistakes on the bumpy path of writing, and some mistakes are bigger than others.
I feel that static characters are not very realistic. I wanted Sahrel to start out flawed, so that her character could develop as she faced adversity. I ended up with a manipulative, arrogant, jaded woman who tiptoed on the border between interesting and unlikeable.
The story opens with Sahrel seeking an abortion— something that many people would find unforgiveable. It’s a pretty big hurdle to overcome in the likeability department. My beta readers were split— most felt that she was interesting enough to keep reading, some found her too unsympathetic. Only a very few actually liked her. I was troubled, to say the least, especially since my other two viewpoint characters, Tom and Cloud, were instantly embraced by 98% of my readers. Put the storylines together, and the problem became glaring. So I rewrote my opening chapters, again, this time with an eye to strengthening Sahrel’s character.
I took pains to show Sahrel’s fear and uncertainty as she embarks on her morally questionable journey. I drew stronger allusions to the abuse she’d suffered in the past. I made sure she thought about the consequences her actions might have on her peers, and showed her trying to protect them as much as she could, even the ones she didn’t like. I sniffed out any passage where Sahrel could be more proactive— confronting problems head on instead of trying to weasel around them (a process I wrote about during the last confession week), and binned any scene where she felt sorry for herself. Sahrel began to bloom. She was still troubled, jaded and manipulative, but she was also self-aware and brave. As I was rewriting a scene where Sahrel faces down a shapeshifting monster, she suddenly said, “I’m nobody’s meat.”
I stopped writing, flabbergasted at what the unconscious part of my brain had just done. Because Sahrel’s whole problem is that she does not belong to herself. She’s property. And yet, she’s defiant.
I’ve spent seven years with this girl, and yesterday I fell in love with her, for the very first time.