Pub Rants

An Observation On Character Development

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STATUS: It’s such a gorgeous day in Denver. I’m ready to pop out early and take Chutney for a long walk.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? WALK ON THE WILD SIDE Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians

This weekend I did my first SCBWI conference. For those of you unfamiliar with the acronym, it stands for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I just had a blast.

As I’ve done in the past, I did my 2-pages or First pages workshop where writers submit their opening pages, it gets read aloud, and I say yay or nay–would I have read on and why.

This time, I had something happen that has never happened before. My reader chose the first three at random and read them aloud. I would have read on for all three.

That’s rare. I’ve given this workshop a dozen or so times and I’ve usually found only one submission that I would have read further on. 99.9% of what we see isn’t quite ready for an agent to review. By the way, this is not to stay it will never be ready. Just that it wasn’t quite there in this incarnation.

Trust me, I don’t want to stomp on writers’ dreams!

For this workshop, I noticed a couple of beginning writer mistakes that I haven’t really talked about yet so I thought I would tackle some.

Beginning Writer Mistake: Opening scenes that make it clear that the writer has not thought through the character’s backstory and history before writing the scene.

What do I mean by this? I can tell from reading the scene that the writer is simply trying to create an exciting opening and if the writer had stopped to think about it, there is no way the characters would react as written if the characters had a clear history with either the other character in the scene or to the event.

For example, a Grandma loves to drive fast, in direct opposition to most people’s perception of how a grandmother would drive. So the writer wants to show this quirky trait and thus writes an opening scene from the grandchild’s perspective who is reacting wildly to the grandmother’s driving.

However, if the character is often driven by her grandmother, she’d be used to her Nana’s rather erratic speed demon driving habit. So given that history, she wouldn’t react dramatically to it; it would be normal.

Do you see what I mean? The writer should approach the scene with the above assumption. Now the writer can still have this opening erratic driving scene but the grandchild character’s reaction would be written differently with this history in mind.

And if it’s the first time the grandmother has ever driven that character, then that would need to be made clear and then the character could react dramatically. The scene would then work.

But I often see slush pile submissions where it’s clear to me that the writer hasn’t quite gotten knowledgeable about his or her characters before jumping in to writing scenes about them.

Just another writing tip to keep in mind!

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21 Responses

  1. Jessica Silva said:

    This is a fantastic post. People constantly ask about what types of beginnings they should avoid, and the cliches are always passed around. This isn’t quite a cliche (since it could happen in any scenario), but it definitely happens. Thank you!

  2. Sarah Nicolas said:

    Yes! You have to know who your main character is in the opening scene, even if everybody else doesn’t.

    I’m a major pantser, but I do a lot of character development activities before I start writing. Even then, I often go back and re-write the first scene after I’ve written the book.

  3. LupLun said:

    To be fair, when you first start writing a book, you don’t know the characters very well. You only just met them, after all. But on the other hand, a writer truly devoted to his craft should revise these problems out. To do otherwise is just plain lazy.


  4. Nicole Pyles said:

    This actually helped me a lot with a book I’m working on! I do want to remember that my character is already used to this! Or at least, this isn’t a surprise! (unless it actually is…ad not something that usually happens) things like that are small, but make a difference! Thank you!

  5. Tim Dodge said:

    Thank you for this post. I’m nearly done with the first draft of my latest novel, and your point is one that I will definitely keep in mind as I work on subsequent drafts.

  6. Joseph L. Selby said:

    Having had a speed-demon grandmother, the proper reaction for a child in the car would be to squeal and shout “Goose it, Gramma! Goose it!”

    Or at least it was at the end of the ’70s. 🙂

  7. Jean Reidy said:

    You perfectly described an opening flaw that I’ve not been able to articulate in critique groups. When stories open with this flaw, I often ask the question, “Why is this happening right now?” or “Why are these characters behaving this way today?” Now I see that I’m trying to better understand their history in order to put their behaviors into a context that makes sense – something I wouldn’t have to do with a polished opening.

    Thank you.

  8. Anonymous said:

    In 99.9% of the published novels I’ve read in my lifetime I’ve rarely ever wanted to read more just based on the first one, two, or even three pages.

    Sometimes authors nail this, in pubbed books or unpubbed mss, and we not only get excellent first pages, but also first paragraphs and even first lines that make us want to read more.

    Most of the time, we all need to get past at least the first chapter of any book out there. In some cases, like with Jonathan Franzen, we need to get past the first half of the book to continue reading.

    Yes, it’s a great tip to keep in mind. But it’s not always a realistic tip.

  9. Angela Brown said:

    This is a great tip to bear in mind. We all want to make that lasting first impression or draw the reader (here, the agent) with that first scene. Hook. Line. Sinker. But I see your point in charging the scene with great action/reaction without thoroughly ensuring it’s normal for the characters involved.

    Thank you for sharing.

  10. Julie Nilson said:

    Aw, your example reminded me of driving with my Gram. (You’re right–the grandchild wouldn’t react wildly. It’s all about digging your nails into the upholstery, breathing deeply, and silently wondering why your parents let you ride with her. 🙂 )

  11. Tricia Clasen said:

    A thoughtful pub tip. As a reader, I like to be sucked in to early pages, but it doesn’t always happen, of course. As a writer, what I like about this is that I tend to begin at the beginning, and it’s difficult to go back and see the beginning a different way once you finish. This gives me a tangle lens for viewing.

  12. Sher A. Hart said:

    The same thing happened at the Orlando SCBWI workshop this summer. The agent mentioned how strange it was as she offered about 10 of us writers suggestions to improve. Maybe more of us are taking critique groups seriously. I even sent my book through a 7th grade class before the workshop. Now I’m trying to get my platform built enough that agents don’t laugh their heads off at my measly following. I sent to 6 very famous males and got 4 rejections within hours, and 2 ignores. Now I hope women agents can be a good judge of my teen male character.

  13. Matt Leo said:

    One way to avoid having to dream up gimmicks to make your characters pop out as individuals in the opening scene is to save writing that scene until fairly late in the process. There’s no law that says you have to start writing page 1 and work your way through to the end in order. Try starting with a few key plot point scenes, perhaps starting with the climax and working back. After ten or twenty thousand words, then start thinking about an opening.

    I see two big advantages to this when it comes to an opening scene. First, you aren’t writing the scene from a POV you are not familiar with yet. You know enough about the character to put in those individual touches that make him interesting and believable. More importantly, you have a more sound idea of the first impression you ought to make.

    The second advantage of working this way is that it reduces the chance you’re starting the story at the wrong place. That’s a lot easier to do than you’d think, because characters have backstories. A lot of manuscripts I critique have serious pacing issues, especially after the opening scene. I think that this is often because the opening starts in a place where it’s hard to get the story moving. Then the authors resort to gimmicks when simply choosing a different starting point would get the story moving naturally.

  14. Lars said:

    Readers don’t care about this subtelty. Agents apparently do, and that’s their bad luck.

    For all and any of these nitpicking so-called errors, I have the same response: read Potter! She broke every rule in the ‘agent’ book.

    Just assess the darn story!