Struggling with Characters


Kevin Sorbo

I’ve been pulling my hair out for the last half hour, struggling to write what was supposed to be a simple, albeit emotionally charged, scene from my novel. Why am I pulling my hair out, you ask? I have one word for you: Cian. Cian is the over-the-top-handsome-tormented-soul character of the story, the male counterpart to the heroine for a majority of the novel and her second love interest. He’s a powerful warrior from a conquering clan in the north with a body to match, that dark, curly hair us girls go ga-ga over, deep voice and eyes, and—sheesh, I’ve got to stop. He’s the most male component of the novel, offset by Xoe’s first lover, Soryn, who is still very much a warrior in his own right, but more a knight to Cian’s savage. I get all flustered just writing about him, because I’m in love with him as much as Xoe is.

So I went to write this scene where Cian conflicts with Nathander—when Cian refused to let me watch as he discovers his mate missing from their chambers. I don’t even get a peek at his subsequent rage, which he usually doesn’t have a problem letting others see. No, instead, he sat back in a hazy cloud, and told me in a disembodied voice that he doesn’t look like Kevin Sorbo.

>_< WTF do you mean, you don’t look like Kevin Sorbo? I demanded. I’m the writer; I decide what you look like!

He chuckles at me, and it sends a shiver down my spine.

I can’t get in his head; he’s too male for me to understand him sometimes, and yet here he is in my novel, causing headaches and heartaches for my girl Xoe. So instead of offering insight to you guys on how to deal with this situation, I want to know what you do to handle a character whose head you cannot get into, particularly because of a gender barrier.

Maybe Cian looks like…

Jason Momoa

Eion Bailey

Hugh Jackman, maybe?

25 thoughts on “Struggling with Characters

  1. briandrush

    Heh. Well, first of all, if he tells you he doesn’t look like Kevin Sorbo, listen to him! He’s the one who looks in a mirror every day, or on the less frequent occasions when he shaves. Or at least once in a while. “I’m the writer; I decide what you look like!” my ass. You know very well that isn’t how it works. If he’s a real character, he’ll take control of that part of your unconscious mind from which he gestates and you will not be completely in control. And if that weren’t the case, you wouldn’t be having a problem right now. And if you WERE completely in control, that would not be a good thing, because he would not be alive, multidimensional, and all the things we want our main characters to be.

    As for the other business, let me get this straight and correct me if I’m wrong here, but it sounds like this Nathander dude either stole Cian’s honey or Cian thinks he did, and there’s a conflict between them on that basis. But you can’t see Cyan acting any of this out. (If that’s not what you meant as far as the plot, please make the appropriate changes in detail to what I’m about to say because this is universal.)

    My first thought is that you can’t see this because you have an idea of how Cyan would behave that isn’t true to what Cyan is really like. Maybe Cyan’s first impulse on discovering that his girl is gone is not to get mad at the guy he thinks made off with her, but to get mad at HER for going off with him. (This is after all not an uncommon reaction.) Maybe Cyan doesn’t have a jealous bone in his body and doesn’t mind that she went off for a little extracurricular activity with Nathander and will just busy himself with something he was putting off until she comes home. Maybe it’s not that extreme, but he doesn’t see her being gone as any big deal until she’s been gone long enough for him to worry about it — she’s a grown-up and he doesn’t expect her to hang around the house every minute. Maybe Cyan was tired of her and ready to dump her anyway so he can chase after some other babe that’s caught his eye.

    Of course any of these could be ruled out by plot and/or characterization developments already done. But the general idea here is that characters sometimes grow organically and not according to meticulous plan, just like other living organisms (a character being a virtual organism).

    So what I would suggest is that you play with different ideas of what Cyan would do, feel, think, and say at this juncture rather than being committed to a single action. If you can’t see the one you had in mind, maybe you’ll be able to see a somewhat different one.

    1. WhitneyCarter

      LOL, reading your comments, I realize how vague that description of the scene was, because it’s not a matter of her running off with some other guy. Nathander is her father, a man who has had nothing to do with her since she was an infant, and feels her very existence is a black mark on his own soul. Xoe and Cian are in his kingdom to negotiate the release of several important prisoners, so it’s really concerning when she’s not safe in their chambers.

      However, I think you are right. Maybe I am trying to write his reactions, when that really isn’t how he would react. Now that I step back and think about it, he would be just as likely to go into a cold rage as a hot one. So thank you so much for your comments–they helped!

  2. danbracewell

    Heh. Hey, Whitney. Very funny. I think the reader is going to make up what the character looks like in their own heads. You just have to point out a few things to get their imagination going. For your own head– my vote is for Jason Momoa. He was pretty amazing in Conan if you haven’t seen it. Also, he’d kick Kevin Strabo’s arse any day of the week.

    http://www.zimbio.com/pictures/sXwsr1fNybS/Jason+Momoa+attends+Conan+Barbarian+Photocall/3wn6VrFEqUv

    1. WhitneyCarter

      LOL, I’m leaning toward Momoa as well, honestly. I was an avid Hercules fan as a kid, so that’s where Sorbo comes from. I thought he was hot, but more than that he had such a sense of honor and right vs wrong that I just had to plug him into the story somewhere… Maybe he is another character though…

  3. deshipley

    I had a character with a mind locked up like a vault, once. It helped to spend some time taking him through my “Anything and Everything Character Questionnaire”. Asking him questions of varying degrees of complication about things that didn’t have anything to do with a plot (so far as I knew at the time, we were finished working together professionally) helped open him up to me. …and led to my realization that I totally had to write another book, so readers could get to know him like I had!

    Briandrush brings up an excellent point, of course. When characters are true, we have a lot less to do with their makeup than we’d liked to think. It’s part of the fun — and, yes, sometimes the frustration.
    And for what it’s worth, if Cian thinks he looks like Hugh Jackman, you can tell him that’s fine by me. (:

    1. WhitneyCarter

      You make an excellent suggestion too–taking the difficult character out of the context of the story. Maybe I should make Cian my personal assistant for a few days and see how that goes! Lol

  4. The Writer's Codex

    I’m just going to say that all of the actors you’ve put together, on some level look alike, which means you’ve got the generalities in place…at least in your mind. Either just go along with it because it’s working or, if it’s not, then make drastic changes. Make him blonde, make him younger, make him older…just do something to shake up what you’re already thinking.

    1. WhitneyCarter

      I hadn’t noticed all four of them kinda look alike… Huh. I’ve often said it would be useful to be a writer and an artist, then I could draw out sketches of characters instead of having to search for the perfect real life look like. Thanks for your suggestions Nathan!

  5. Dennis Langley

    Sit down and have a serious conversation with your character. Write down the Q and the A. Take your time but don’t force it. Your character will come out and tell you what you need to know. Another angle is to have a conversation with the other characters about him.

      1. The Writer's Codex

        I’m going to put in my two cents on this…and it kind of mimics what D. Langley had to say. Don’t force it. If the answers don’t come to a particular question or set of questions that you’re looking for, then just move on to something else. Your mind will likely want to make connections anyway and provide you with some interesting stuff.

        I recently used this person’s questions for one of my characters.

        http://wp.me/p2INHn-e

        I didn’t answer some of the modern day questions because they weren’t appropriate for a medieval ages character, but they were great questions that I wouldn’t think to ask my character myself.

        Sometimes that’s important too. Don’t ask only the questions you thought up, you might steer yourself into a corner because you already know what you’re working toward and when the answers don’t come it only gets more difficult, ask yourself other people’s questions too.

        Try that person’s out, see how they work for you, and if they don’t satisfy, try someone elses. I also suggest asking then answering as you go, don’t read ahead and anticipate the questions, just move through them blindly as best as possible. Your results just might inspire you.

      2. WhitneyCarter

        Awesome, thanks for the link Nathan. I’m getting ready to attempt the scene again, so if Cian stonewalls me again, I’m going to pull him aside with those questions. I’m gonna ask them anyway, but no point in irritating him if he’s willing to work with me in-story first!

      3. Dennis Langley

        If you go “Dr. Phil” on Cian, you will most likely not like the result. If you don’t get answers you like, go ahead and write the story the way it feels at the moment. If it’s wrong, it will show you.

  6. Dawn

    Certain characters certainly can be a challenge. I’m sure it is especially difficult for females to write males and males to write females. I’m with briandrush in that you kind of have to go with where the character is taking you. I bet writers for tv series have the same problem. They write a character in the first season but the actor/acress gives him/her a life of their own. As you get more and more into a tv series the character develops into something greater than what the writers originally intended.

    1. WhitneyCarter

      I’ve often wondered how different the process is when writing for a novel vs writing for the screen. I know it’s good practice to let the characters develop on their own and communicate their personality to you, so I am letting Cian call the shots. It’s just that he’s toying with me, and we both know it. :p

  7. Pingback: Character Templates « The Writings of Dan

  8. Tiyana

    Heh, I’ve had a similar problem with one of my characters.
    He’s not likely to lash out at anyone, even if he is angry. Also, in my mind, he is attractive (like Cian), but even though he’s aware of this he just chooses not to make a big deal about it. Despite the fact that many females often find him charming, he comes across as rather immune to their charms; he’s also good at reading people (in fact, he’s an empath), though people find it difficult to read and understand him.

    Also, like Cian, he’s got that “tortured soul” complex about him that sometimes makes him seem closed off and a little broody at times to other characters because he’s actually really introspective and hardly ever shares his inner thoughts and feelings—one of the reasons people find him so hard to read.

    Anyway, something that’s helped me to understand this character (his name is Ronny) better is to constantly ask myself why. Why is Cian reflecting on the way he doesn’t look when, in your mind, he should be enraged? (Is he actually showing signs of insecurity here? That could be something to explore.) Why is he a tormented soul, or what has made him this way? I can tell you in Ronny’s case he is tormented because he’s had to turn a past lover over to the law after not just betraying him but also his country—which also explains his guarded nature around women. (He’s pretty blunt with other males, lol.)

    Not necessarily saying this is the case with you and Cian, but with me and Ronny I think one of the reasons I had a hard time understanding him is because I maintained a pretty superficial outlook on his character initially (he’s so hot, so mysterious…etc.). Also, I’d personally never met anyone like him, so I guess I didn’t have much more than my imagination to work with! It wasn’t until I’d explored him further through questioning and having him interact with other characters that that veil of mystery began to dissolve. Sure, he was still mysterious to my MC as I wrote about them in the beginning, but that’s only because she hadn’t learned to understand him yet. So throughout the story she, too, has to go through the same process of discovery as I have, just in her own way.

    Also, with Ronny being an introspective character, I’ve found that playing more with unspoken thoughts has actually given me an opportunity to reveal sides of his character to readers that sometimes my other characters don’t get to see, which creates irony. (Maybe Cian is just doing the same, in this instance?)

    Anyhow, it’s strange because it’s been like getting to know a real person, lol. Only recently within the past few months have I even met someone who I think is anything like him (without the psychic abilities, though he is really good at reading people, even if it’s just over the phone, and is equally complex, imo). In any case, it’s given me some things to reflect on. 🙂

    Sorry for the long post, lol, but I hope it helps!

    1. WhitneyCarter

      Tiyana, you take the prize for longest comment ever, lol! You make excellent points though, so much so that now I’m in character overload trying to dissect Cian’s mind with “why, why, why, why, why?” Needless to say, he’s not happy, but it’s already having positive results. We shall see how long the two of us can stand it though. Thank you so much for your insights and taking the time to write up all that! 🙂

  9. Griffin walker

    I seem to be having the opposite problem. I’m a guy and I can’t seem to flesh out my male lead (maybe I do but I just don’t feel satisfied about his development). I do have a lot more fun writing my female lead (my male leads love interest). For her it’s not an issue of her gender at this point in the story. I really focus more on how they would act and react in accordance to their backstory.

    1. WhitneyCarter

      Griffin, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Your question got me thinking. Stereotypically, society tells guys to be unemotional, strong, dominate and self-sustaining. Perhaps your male lead is just very good at being closed off from the rest of the world, as he was taught to do. Maybe try treating him like a buddy of yours having some kind of problem. How would you get a friend to open up? Hope this helps!

      1. Griffin walker

        Thanks for taking the time to comment on my comment! I didn’t expect anyone to respond. Your suggestion actually goes right with how I’ve been thinking about my male lead recently. Isolation and loneness are turning out to be major themes for both my male lead and female lead. Those themes are helping me flesh out the male leads personality and develop his backstory a lot better.

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