Be a character not a camera

Recently I cleared off my desk and disposed of quite a few little scraps of paper containing notes that at one time or another were vital to something I was writing. It could be Go West or my current, yet unnamed, wip.  These notes are usually scrawled on return address envelopes, the backs of receipts, or old grocery lists.  They usually contain the first few sentences of an important scene that’s floated into my brain when I’m driving or in the middle of teaching a genetics lesson at school.

One of these little gems I uncovered simply said, “Be a character, not a camera.” I have a tendency to write my main characters as observers. Too often it seems, they are the person the story happens around.  This makes my early readers wonder, who is this person? Is this really their story?

I think I have a tendency to do this for two related reasons. The first, is that regardless of age or gender, or even the point of view I’m writing from, I most closely associate myself with the main character.  Therefore I’m a little reluctant to make them too deeply flawed.  I’m oddly protective of them. I’m nervous about creating too much conflict around them.  I know, it’s a problem -since conflict is the essential heart of all good stories.

The second, very closely related reason, is just being the author in general. One criticism of my first completed novel (not the one that sold) was that the voice was too “authorial” in places. As with all criticism my first instinct was to reject it outright.Stupid criticism!  But with time and distance I saw what they were talking about. Sometimes my main character sounded like my main character, and sometimes she sounded like “THE AUTHOR”!  Just a bit too worldly, wise and omniscient to be a 14 year old girl living in a giant landfill.  Oops.

So as I’m currently drafting a new book, I’m trying to hold this in mind. I’m trying to let my main character be herself and not some idealized version of herself.  I’m working on lists of things I know about her, regardless of whether they ever make it into the actual writing.  (There are lots of lists like this available on the interwebs. Here’s one.) The more fully developed she is in my mind, the easier I think it will be to distinguish her voice from mine.

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One thought on “Be a character not a camera

  1. I love this distinction between the main character and author’s character when working in first person storytelling and the need to stay true to your main character. Staying true to your main character probably frees him/her to develop in unexpected ways. The more surprise the more spontaneity in the story.

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