3. Characters emerge via outside feedback.
Writing is both a solitary and a communal experience. We usually start writing in the privacy of our own space but then put out feelers through workshops and beta-readers. We can learn so much more about our characters as we see them through other people’s eyes. I remember one time during a workshop one of my fellow participants was commenting on the book of another workshop attendee. There was a scene where one of the male characters, who recently had an affair, meets his ex-wife at an art gallery. The ex-wife sees him looking at a painting, and they have a nice conversation. The reader kept talking about how it was so interesting that the ex-husband had done a painting that hung in a gallery. He said it really helped him understand this character better to know that this guy was also a painter.
The author of the piece then said, “He didn’t do the painting, he was just moved by it. But I think that’s better. It makes sense, maybe he’s also an artist.” I spoke to her later about this turn she made after our workshop-mate’s misreading, and she said, “It really made him a more dynamic character. He wasn’t just the bad-guy ex-husband, but a man trying to deal with his own pain through art.” Having read the final draft of her novel, I can say that the ex-husband is definitely no longer just a bad-guy ex but rather someone to feel sympathy for. This wasn’t something my friend went into her novel thinking about. She didn’t set out to create a compassion-inducing ex-husband, but the misreading helped her see another side of him that was not only better for his character but also better for her novel as well.
We all have those characters in our minds that we really want to write about. They seem so interesting that we just know they’ll pop out of the story we place them in. But even our best characters, the ones we truly want to write about, are strangers to us during the first draft. We need to spend real time with them. We need them to tell us their deepest, darkest secrets, and that takes time – and drafts. But if we wait, if we trust that we’ll get to know these characters better through the drafting process, we usually find that these characters can surprise even us, their creators, with just how much is inside them and just how interesting they really are.
Because better characters make better stories. The more complex our characters are, the more compelling our stories will be.
—Jessica Stilling is a novelist and short story writer. Her second novel, The Beekeeper’s Daughter, was published in September 2019. She lives and teaches in New York City.