DO NOT LOVE YOUR CHARACTERS (More or Less Than Your Readers)
Dear Internet, I apologize for being absent. I was out of town and then I was writing the sequel to Raven Boys and then I was buying a race car. I know. Excuses, excuses.
A few days ago, I posted some coffee-fueled writing tips on Facebook and Twitter. As follows:
1. Thou shalt not love your characters more than your readers do.
2. Do not forget the weather.
3. (specially for YA writers!) Only 20% of US families are single-child families. HELLO SIBLINGS.
4. Read it out loud. In Emma Thompson's voice, if you can.
5. If you're bored while writing, the reader is bored while reading. Delete & regroup over coffee.
I got asked a few times to clarify #1, so that is what I intend to do. When I said it, I was not referring to the treasured writing wisdom “kill your darlings.” Faulkner was the first to advise writer to kill their darlings, which basically boils down to: if you love a bit of your writing too much to be reasonable and logical about it, you should cut it. That you should never sacrifice the good of the whole because of blind affection for a single bit. (I do not agree with this advice, by the way. I think if you love a part of your writing beyond reason, you should delete the rest of it and write the rest to match the loved bit).
What I meant when I said “thou shalt not love your characters more than your readers do” was that you can love your characters, but you must show your work.
I can’t tell you how many times a writer has confessed to me how much he/she adores her characters, how their voices inhabit his/her life, how he/she wishes they were real so he/she could spend time with them*. Then I read the manuscript and the characters are flat as a board. It’s possible — nay, probable — that these characters are vivid, living, lovable characters in the writer’s head, inhabiting a fully-realized world full of authentic moments. But none of that character-building has made it onto the page. The writer hasn’t managed to write the characters well enough to allow the readers to share that experience.
*sometimes writers tell me they have crushes on their character and would date them and then I get squicked out and run away. So feel that way if you must, just don’t tell me about it. Because I will run away.
As a writer, you have to earn every little bit of affection. Our goal as writers, maybe over and above anything else, is to convey the story in our head in such a way that readers experience it exactly the way we imagine it.
Loving characters that readers don’t care about is just . . . unseemly. When you’re in love with them, you have to make sure that your fondness for them isn’t ruining your objective portrayal of them. Perhaps Faulkner was right after all. If you love a character too much to be able to tell if you’re getting across their coolness, maybe you are better off just cutting them.
Oh, you know I don’t really believe that. I always think the answer is improving your writing to match your passion, not stripping passion from your work. I think it holds true for characters too. Listen to what your critique partners say about your them. You know your characters through your emotions and imagination. Your critiquers know them only through your words. Your job is to make those two portrayals the same.