Would more people write fiction if they could imagine characters they’d like to be around? Wouldn’t it be fun to get lost in worlds of your own making, populated with a cast of perfect characters? In theory, yes. But it’s not that easy to execute. Stories move forward through tension, opposition, and conflict. Characters grow to correct flaws or underdevelopment. They improve and become interesting when their status quo is insufficient for the tasks at hand, and so they rise to meet them. The action can’t be all wine and roses, and the characters can’t always be at their best.
I recently thought of a storyline that had legs. I had a hard time breathing life into it, though, because it took awhile to find a likeable and sustainable main character. My mind crafted possible protagonists, and as quickly dismissed them as boring, shallow, or agitating. Some characters had the chops to go the distance for a sequel or series, but I just didn’t think I’d like them enough to keep them going. I had visions of wanting to kill my own hero off so I wouldn’t have to write yet another saccharine missive.
Birthing a novel is a significant undertaking in terms of emotional investment and time. There is the actual writing effort. Even for a fast writer, 60,000 words or more doesn’t come easy. An article in The Writer discussed the variety of writing speeds of some well-known authors. Ranging from around 600 words per day to over 2,000 per day, one couldn’t expect to write a novel in under a month. Hence the National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) month-long challenge to write 50,000 words each November.
Add to that, those word counts aren’t in “salvageable” words. Many fall to the cutting room floor, only to be replaced with more writing, more words. And of course you’ll spend more time in creative thinking, editing, and rewrites. Something about your fictional world and its people has to keep calling you back. So you have to like it at some level.
Once birthed, the manuscript can’t exist without your nurturing. It takes more effort to get it packaged and staged for shelves, virtual or otherwise, and to market the work. During that experience you’ll talk about the character, consider the character, speak to their motives, strengths and failings in your effort to gin up interest and engage future potential readers.
When I consider the level of effort, I’d rather not embark on it with a main character that is petty, miserly, miserable, sociopathic, or just plain irritating. It might be satisfying in a redemption work, like watching Scrooge become a better self in A Christmas Carol. But redemption stories have inherent limits. After all, there’s no Scrooge franchise with Another Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s Fourth Ghost, or Educating Tim.
Given my unwillingness to commit to writing worlds and personae I don’t like, I began to wonder how writers of grizzly horrors or psychological thrillers manage to live in their novel worlds long enough to finish their own books. I found some great answers in Lee Murray’s piece, “Horror in Real Life: Writers and their Mental Illness Demons”. This is not to suggest that all authors who write horror stories struggle with mental illness. But Lee’s interviews of horror story authors provide fascinating insight into how the writing process impacts different individuals.
In fact, after reading Murray’s article, I even felt brave enough to consider adding some menacing characters into my storyline. But don’t get ahead of yourself. I may be willing to sprinkle them in, but there’s no central role for them anything I plan to write.