Mentor Monday: Characterization


After my initial meeting with my mentor, Claudia Mills,
I had to make a decision about my main character.
I needed to decide how "mean and rotten" I wanted her to be.

Claudia pointed out that as long as the reader
has a sense of the character’s pain,
they will accept less-than-loving attitudes and behaviors.

Some of the actions I brainstormed for my main character
were really and truly rotten.
Those actions would undoubtedly ramp up the story’s conflict
and create huge potential for dramatic pay-off.

I thought and thought about this girl and what she was about.

Then I read a middle-grade novel that’s received lots of buzz and an award.
The main character is mean.
Really mean.
And even though the author did reveal the main character’s pain,
the emotional scale felt way out of balance.
That character’s pain wasn’t enough for me
and I had no sympathy for her.
In fact, I was a wee bit pissed off when I finished that book.

Obviously, there are many, many people who love it.
I’m just one reader.
But that book helped me decide:
I do not want CLOSE TO HOME told in the voice of a mean and rotten character.

Will my main character be perfect?
Absolutely not.
Will she say and do some bad things?

My job is to to do right by this character,
and I’m going to work hard to find the perfect balance for the emotional scale.

11 thoughts on “Mentor Monday: Characterization

  1. Good for you, for reflecting on this in a way that helped you realize (and stay true) to your own vision.

    No one’s all “good” or 100% “evil.” So yeah, you’re right that it’s all about finding that balance. A tightwire act, that.

    As I was reading your entry, I was reminded of a a blogger’s approach to character-development that resonated with me and might also prove useful to you. I won’t be offended if it doesn’t speak to you directly, but I will say that it suggests yet another way of developing 3-D characters.


  2. I’m another who doesn’t really want to spend time with a mean and rotten person, regardless of the pain. It’s okay when the character isn’t the main, but I can’t handle reading an entire book from that kind of perspective.


    • Reading this book was difficult because there was much to like there but it was overshadowed by that mean girl. I couldn’t get past that. I can’t think of another book that hit me the same way.

      Claudia mentioned Gilly Hopkins as an unlikable character, but she didn’t hit me like this most recent main character. I could sympathize with Gilly. The balance felt just right in that story.


    • Absolutely. I could toss all sorts of grenades into the story but then it wouldn’t be my story (and not just because I’m not the grenade-tossing kind). I’m glad I figured out my approach to this project, though. That decision was tough but now I’m free to move ahead.

      This is the story formerly known as Free-for-All, so you’ll be happy to know it’s already much better than the version you read. Whew.


  3. Sounds like a wise decision. In the end, this book is your book, and you had better like it, other people’s opinions be damned. So it’s okay if she’s not super-mean. Flawed is good.

    I’m going to inflict a bit of Austen on you just now, okay? It’s from a wickedly satiric piece she wrote called The Plan of a Novel, which was based on unasked-for advice from people she knew. The whole thing is worth reading (and it’s pretty short), but here’s the bit of it I think applies:

    This will of course exhibit a wide variety of Characters — but there will be no mixture; the scene will be for ever shifting from one Set of People to another — but All the Good will be unexceptionable in every respect — and there will be no foibles or weaknesses but with the Wicked, who will be completely depraved and infamous, hardly a resemblance of humanity left in them.


    • That’s pretty amazing stuff. She knew how to stand her ground, didn’t she?

      Yep, I definitely want to write a character with at least a resemblance of humanity left in her. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing that, Kelly.


      • If you like that, you will also like this tidbit from a letter she wrote to James Stanier Clarke (the Regent’s librarian) in 1816, in response to a letter in which he made suggestions as to what she ought to write next:

        “You are very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.”


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