Saturday, September 24, 2016

Character Concerns

Sometimes when you query an agent you are lucky enough to get a personal response. I've been lucky a few times and these agents gave me their honest feedback about the sample chapters (most often the first three chapters of your book, but sometimes as little as the first five pages), which I am grateful for. More than one agent said the same thing; they ultimately didn't connect with my main character. That's pretty disappointing for me because I feel that the story I've written is so much about my main character and how she changes. To me, the book is more about how the challenges Rose Delaney faces change her, rather than what happens in the plot. But this is good constructive criticism that I am lucky to have, so I've been looking back over the book, thinking about ways to change that. And the more I looked at it, the more I realized that despite spewing out a novel, I don't really have a full grasp of who Rose is, at least not at the beginning of the story. And that's a problem because if a reader doesn't care about your main character from the very beginning, they aren't going to invest in the rest of your book. Even I tell my students that if they aren't interested in the story or the characters within the first chapter or two of a new book, they should put it down and try something else. Reading is about enjoyment, after all, and if you aren't enjoying it - then why are you doing it?

So... What to do?

This is where I fall back on my teaching experience and one of the lessons I use when I teach characterization. There are four ways we learn about a character:
  • What a character looks like 
  • What a character says and does
  • What a character thinks and feels
  • How other characters react to the character
In a writing lesson, I have students create their own character. The point of the assignment is to describe this character using these four methods. They must also create a story around this character that explains this character's goal and how that goal came to be. Many students go on to write short stories about their characters because the more you understand a character you've created, the more ideas you have about their adventures in the life you've created for them, and the more you want to join in on those adventures.

So, I'm going to take my own advice and get to know Rose Delaney a little better.

Rose, 17, has dark brown eyes and long dark hair. Her hair is shiny and obedient, like the kind of hair you see in shampoo commercials. She likes flipping it over her shoulder when she knows admiring eyes are on her. She often wears it in a bun, but today has decided on a ponytail. She secretly enjoys the way it swings behind her when she stalks down the halls, knowing that even the girls who give her dirty looks or gossip about her behind her back are forced to stare jealously at her back, wishing the were as beautiful as her. Rose's effortless sense of style makes her look both classy and casual at the same time. Her trademark is the only shade of lipstick she ever wears, Big Red. It perfectly matches her red cheerleader's uniform and gives her lips a fuller, kissable look. Many of Rose's classmates have her pegged as stereo-typically shallow and stupid, but they don't know that she maintains a near perfect GPA, dreams of attending Julliard for dance, or that she has a passion for reading, and especially enjoys Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice is her favorite, and she often rereads her own worn, highlighted copy. Something in the smell of the dusty pages makes her feel warm and reminds of her when she read it for the first time, as a gift from her father. Her father, whom she can hardly think of now without her eyes welling up with tears. Suck it up, Rose Delaney. You don't cry over anyone, least of all him.

Rose rules the school as both Head Cheerleader and Prom Queen, titles she wears with pride and authority. She mingles with her subjects at football and basketball games, and makes appearances at parties. It never occurs to her friends that Rose never actually drinks her beer. She holds it in her hand like a prop, regretting each sip as she remembers her mother's most recent alcoholic binge. The aftertaste of alcohol becomes bitter and empty, and she holds onto the cup so no one hassles her, and observes in silent judgment as her classmates slowly become slow and stupid. Some of them get angry, like her mom, and a fight breaks out. That's usually when she leaves with the flavor of the month. With her popularity and beauty, Rose is in no danger of running out of Friday Night Dates. Or Saturday Night Dates. Or (day of the week here) Night Dates. Boys are desperate to attain the unattainable Rose Delaney, even if only for the night. They lust after her lithe dancer's physique and fantasize about the softness of her lips and skin. But none ever succeeds. It's all a game to Rose. Make them want her, make them need her, and then toss them away. There's always another sucker around the next corner. People always say, "Leave them wanting more," right? Well, it works. Especially on boys, who are so hormone driven, that they will do anything you want if they think they'll get to kiss you at the end of it. Idiots.

Rose's friendships are no more than tenuous connections based on jealousy and the Teenage Social Hierarchy. It isn't just her Head Cheerleader and Prom Queen status that keeps her at the top of the food chain. It's fear. As much as the other girls are jealous of Rose, they fear her. Because they know what happens when you cross Rose Delaney. Just ask the girl whose head she stomped on a few months ago. She may be pretty and dainty to some, but Rose has no problem getting her hands dirty either. Consequently, there's no one there to catch her when her family falls apart, but Rose stays strong by convincing herself that she prefers it that way, sticking a band-aid over her problems and surging forward. Besides, life's not about her or her problems right now. For Rose, it's about her five year old brother Liam. Daddy isn't around anymore and he doesn't understand why. She melts when she looks into his cherubic face, unable to bear the thought of his tears or sadness. Liam is too young to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. He should be busy with play dates and laughter. His world should be all puppies and rainbows. I'll do anything to protect him from the cruelness of this world we live in. He deserves that much.

Moira, Rose's mother, is never around, either at work or at the bar, looking for another man whose family she can ruin. Suddenly Rose feels like the lone adult in the household, keeping it running while her mother gallivants around town with the other drunks in skimpy clothes that Rose might see on some of her classmates. When she is around, Rose and her mother fight like cats and dogs, each slinging burning insults at the other until someone throws something or gets slapped. Rose does love her mother, but since adolescence kicked in, and especially since the divorce, Rose's anger at her mother is winning the emotional battle against love. She's a selfish bitch, my mother. And the world's biggest hypocrite. Some Catholic you are; sleeping around, divorce, binge drinking, slapping your only daughter, and breaking families apart. She forces us to go to church every Sunday, and I go without argument just to see if she'll burst into flames when she crosses the threshold. So far, I've been disappointed, but there's always next Sunday to look forward to.

I'm not the World's Best Daughter, or even the World's Best Sister. And getting suspended for stomping on that bitch's head a few months ago certainly won't win me Student or Catholic of the Year, but at least I'm honest with myself about my faults. I'm not perfect. Sometimes I'm not even a good person, and I don't pretend to be. All I really want in this life is to survive, and make sure Liam survives too. Of course, when I set those goals, I never imagined that I'd have to save either of us from our own murderous house...


So, there's Rose, the main character of Wolfhowl Mountain. It's through her eyes we witness the action. Right now she doesn't sound especially likable. She's going through a hard time, missing her father and blaming her mother for the divorce. Uprooting her right before her senior year and moving from big city Texas to small town Maine isn't helping matters. But this is only the beginning of Rose's story. This book is Rose's journey, in which she learns that the world does not revolve around her and that there's something to be said about leaning on other people, about allowing yourself to become close to another person. Can her inner goodness prevail? That is the question.

So how about you? What do you do to get to know and understand the characters you've created?

No comments:

Post a Comment