Friday, March 1, 2013

Fiction Writing: Acting and Reacting

When I'm writing a story, I always have a hard time figuring out how my characters should react to things. In my college fiction-writing classes, I went through a temporary phase of writing stories based on truth. Even if the story had nothing to do with me, the lead character's emotions matched how I felt at the time. When did this, people said that my characters were overreacting. I've been told that real people don't cry or get upset as often as my characters do, even though I'm a real person and my characters behaved the way that I would in the same situation. When I began writing my first novel, I was very aware of not having my character react as strongly as I would. I tried to guess at how the average person would feel about various situations, since I couldn't use my own reality as a basis. As a result, I swung too far in the opposite direction. I created a lead character, Melissa, who goes along with dangerous things in order to please someone she barely knows, who doesn't voice her opinion even when things are very wrong, whose deepest, darkest secret is that she once said something rude to someone she doesn't like.  Any time she does voice her opinion, she explains that "it slipped out," even if she's just suggesting that setting the house on fire may not be a smart idea.

This change wasn't completely accidental.  In some ways, I did it on purpose because I didn't want my character's conflict or feelings invalidated.  When someone says, "I can't believe all this happened to Melissa and she never said anything," it makes me feel good because it acknowledges that the conflict is a real conflict and that Melissa had every right to be upset. I made sure the reader could have nothing bad to say about Melissa, that the reader would think everything she did or felt was more than justified.

Part of the problem is that I think too much about the people who will see my story first, rather than the general population. I personally love stories with a lot of angst. The fifth Harry Potter book is my favorite because of all the emotion that, in my mind, fits the situation. I would rather read a story with a little too much angst than a story where people don't show emotional reactions to anything. I'm more annoyed by what I perceive as underreactions than overreactions.  My parents don't like angst stories, and several of my classmates didn't like stories that were too whiny. I've been trying to construct a story with lessened reactions that will appeal to my inner circle. But I'm not the only person who likes angst stories.  Look at the popularity of Catcher in the RyeThe Perks of Being a Wallflower, and the Twilight series, among others. Lots of people relate to angst, and if I want to write an angst story, I shouldn't limit myself just because it's not my family or friends' favorite genre.

After reviewing my first book a year later, I think Melissa's main flaw is that she isn't flawed enough, that no one has a reason to not like her. Because most of us do have stronger or weaker reactions to certain things than the average person does. Most of us do sometimes hurt other people or create more conflict when there is a more constructive solution. Most of us have traits that make people not like us. All these things can make a character more relatable. I'm working on my second book now, and I'm still holding back a little by making sure the situation is just one step above the reaction. I'm not going for a perfect character - I'm trying for a relatable one. I'm letting my new lead character run free because I trust her. Someday, I won't hold back the reactions at all.

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