NaNoWriMo Tip #17: The emotional depth of your characters is important.

Scarlett and Rhett

Throwing words onto the page is the essence of National Novel Writing Month. But meeting a word quota isn't the most thoughtful way in which to craft a story. When you go back and read what you've written, inevitably you will re-edit each scene.

This will be the time in which you can ask yourself if your character is all he (or she) should be — and strengthen them even further.

When it comes to developing characters, most writers seem to fall into two camps. The first works from a great plot premise, allowing it to determine what characters will inhabit the story, and to drive his or her plot forward. The second starts with an idea for a unique hero, then creates plot challenges that showcase the hero's character strengths and (hopefully) flaws.

There are pitfalls to both approaches. When a story is plot-driven, sometimes the author will leave out all those things that allow readers to empathize with the hero. Remember: you want your readers to fall in love with your hero.

However, if your story is character-driven, the author may be telling us all the reasons why we should love this character, but is not giving the hero anything to do. If the hero is not challenged, he is not given a reason to grow and change.

And the reader has no reason to care for him.

As in real life, character is demonstrated through actions (plot) and words (dialogue). A strong narrative voice — not necessarily first person — allows us into the heads of the hero: not just to hear what he is thinking, but to gauge how he is feeling, too. 

Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind was her debut novel. It took her nine years to write. No NaNoWriMo deadline, there!)I

t is a perfect example of a hero whose strength of character is revealed through the challenges that come with a sweeping plot.

Mitchell's heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, is a young Southern woman who is unable to let go of  her unrelenting obsession for a childhood sweetheart, Ashley Wilkes, through the course of the Civil War and Reconstruction. This obsession destroys her chance for true happiness with the man who has stood beside her from the beginning: Rhett Butler.

In her novel's nine-year journey, Mitchell edited, and re-edited and re-edited her unwieldy none-hunderd page manuscript, and still wasn't satisfied with it. Everyone in her social circle knew she was writing a novel, but she never had the courage to show it to friends.

Mitchell's break came when she met an editor from MacMillan Publishers at a local tea. He was in town looking for novel manuscripts that his company might consider. Although Mitchell kept silent about her own project, a scornful remark about Mitchell's efforts made by an acquaintance gave Mitchell the kick in the pants she needed to box up the manuscript and hand it off the the editor just as he boarded his train to New York.

The rest is publishing history. Her effort proved to be Pulitzer- and film-worthy as well.

Despite a devastating war that has turned Scarlett O'Hara's fortunes upside down, and in spite of her flaws of vanity and pettiness, for decades now readers have been drawn to Scarlett and her story, for good reason: 

We know people like her. We are her.

We are annoyed by her, we pity her. And we love her.

Even Mitchell's secondary characters — Aunty Pittypat, the Tarleton twins, Charles Hamilton, Mrs. Merriweather — are so well-written that we feel as if we know them. Even if they annoy you, they raise emotion in you. 

This says a lot about the author.

What do your characters say about you?

(c) 2011 Josie Brown. All rights reserved.

PICTURE: in the movie version of Gone with the Wind, Vivien Leigh played Scarlett O'Hara, and Clark Gable played the man she should have loved, Rhett Butler. It was casting at its best.




I've got a question for you, and be honest: Would you want to hang out with your hero/heroine? Tell me why (or why not)…

Happy National Novel Writing Month,

— Josie


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