Niggling Characters

This isn’t really about niggling characters, it’s about the two main aspects of the writing craft I learned in the last year. One is “don’t ignore niggling doubts” and the other is the importance of strong characters. Well, the second one is more something that I (think) has really, finally, truly clicked, after all, you can hardly read a writing blog or craft book without the author mentioning it (but what do they know?)

Cover of "Shrek (Full Screen Single Disc ...
Dreamworks made me love an ogre and a donkey…

Niggling doubts are one area that’s a little different for me. There’s always a sentence or a scene or an opening that doesn’t feel quite right to me. Typically, I’m not quite sure if it’s a problem and, more often, I may not be sure what to do about it. So I leave it in, thinking, “Let’s see what the readers think. Maybe they’ll like it.” Bad idea. They never like. Sure, some may not comment on it but someone always will and after they do, it’s time to kick myself, thinking “Why didn’t I just fix it before I sent it out?”

It happened most recently in a revised chapter 1 for SOTA that I put through critters. I wasn’t sure if the exposition was too much in chapter 1. It was. And thing is, before queuing it, I knew it. I should have fixed it but in the end I wasn’t really sure what to replace it with. (Although queuing it wasn’t a total loss, some of the feedback did point me in the right direction.) So, new resolution, never ignore the niggling doubts. It’s something I’ve been trying to work on for the past year but I’m done with letting the niggling prose slip through. If something doesn’t feel quite right to me, it won’t feel any better for someone else. Afterall, I’m the author of said prose; if someone as biased as me isn’t sure about it, who will it work for?

Hotel Transylvania
Hotel Transylvania: even a silly movie can hook you with good characterization.

The other thing that finally clicked has to do with characters: characters that appeal to the reader from the first scene but still are changed by the story. Here, I’m sure I’ve got a lot of work to get it right but what has changed for me is the realization that my stories aren’t going to go anywhere without solving that part of the puzzle. Interesting settings and clever plots are nice, and there’s always some author who can get away mostly with that (techno thrillers can sometimes survive with cardboard characters) but I don’t like stories where the characters don’t engage me so why should I write them?

This realization has partly come through analyzing what appealed about movies and books I like. Why did I like Shrek so much? I remember hearing the premise and thinking “Donkey and ogre, that’s completely stupid.” It was the characters and, especially, watching Shrek change. Even something as silly and in the end forgettable as Hotel Transylvania was fun. It was predictable yet the characters still had me cheering for them. The Harry Potter series is another example. The setting is amusing and endearing although silly in many ways. The plots don’t always work for me although some of the twists are fun but it’s the characters that grab me, including Hogwarts: it’s more character than setting for me.

TMSO has a great series of posts on how Pixar handles this. I’ve also found Laura Barker’s Discovering Story Magic to be a great way to define the characters in a way that can help shape my stories and (hopefully) connect my plots to characters that engage the readers and have them cheering by the end.

Anyway, it’s off to the next false summit for me 🙂

Happy writing.

11 thoughts on “Niggling Characters

  1. I think you are right to evaluate characters you do like and see what it is that appeals to you about them. I may do that in my next few blog posts. But, I think we do have to be careful about wanting to make our characters appeal to everyone.

    I couldn’t stand Rothfuss’ main character in The Name of the Wind. So many readers did, but I didn’t. I don’t think there is anything the author or character could change to please me. I just didn’t like the character and I passed on reading the remainder of the book and series.

    I guess, the trick is to find a character that appeals to you and hope that everyone else in the world likes him/her, too. 😉

    (I’m just joking, of course. I think…)

    1. I agree with both the general comment and the one about Name of the Wind 🙂 Not sure why that character was so popular, he seemed to be the definition of a male Mary-Sue. But it sounds like it kept both of us from reading the full series, too.

      Regarding my characters, I have been guilty of making them a little wishy-washy and also not “setting” them firmly early on. Those are things I don’t care for as a reader so, something for me to work.

      Thanks for the comments!

  2. I agree with you about the characters. I’m one of those people who doesn’t always remember much about the plot of a book I read a long time ago (unless it’s one I’ve read at least a couple of times since). Sometimes I get a bit lost with the twists and turns of a story, even as I’m reading. But the characters, and to some extent the world itself, I will remember. Those are what bring me back to read a favorite book (or see a favorite movie) again.

    1. It’s funny how that works but you are right- the characters linger, the plot fades (for most books). The one exception for me is some but not all of the techno-thrillers from the 80s. I remember Ryan from Hunt for Red October, for instance, but the only thing I remember about the characters in Red Storm Rising was how Mary-Sue-ish the weatherman on Iceland was. And I don’t remember any other characters.

  3. I think this is one pitfall of living in such a hurry-up world. We have to finish things NOW and submit them NOW, whether because we’re tired of the story or we feel pressure to keep up with friends who we think are writing and submitting more than we are. It’s hard to slow down and listen to that internal voice telling us that the project isn’t ready. But, as you say, we gotta!

    1. It’s certainly a balancing act. And if it’s an intermediate draft and you know you will replace it later, no harm done. But for me, there have been too many places where I wasn’t sure if it was good and enough and was hoping readers would disagree. In those situations, I’m trying to train myself to fix it rather than hope 🙂

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  5. I agree on the niggling doubts. Get you every time at the reader/critique stage, don’t they?

    I’m still trying to figure out the “character” part. I think a lot of books I really like have characters who aren’t that likable. They’re compelling, interesting in the way of a train wreck, sometimes. Driven, might be another common thread for me. I think, too, that I get into a book when I can identify with the character or their plight. Or the situations they fall into are funny or fascinating; or the characters themselves are funny. Like Donkey in Shrek (I would’ve wrung his neck). Or (very rarely) the words used to tell the story are just so brilliantly arranged. But for me the emphasis is wrong if I try to make my characters likable, or worry if they’re likable. It reminds me too much of junior high.

    1. I was perhaps being a bit lazy- maybe “compelling” rather than “likable” but something needs to draw the reader in. And in defense of likable, there are a lot of successful authors whose main strength is likable characters so there’s nothing wrong with that. Probably not going to be my path to success if I get there though, for better or worse 🙂

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