Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cut It Out

by Chris F. Holm

How often do my personal interests sneak into my fiction under the guise of my characters' own interests?

As little as possible. And when they do sneak in, I do my best to excise them during editing. Why? Because I discovered through painful trial-and-error that they almost always weaken the story.

Sounds counterintuitive, I know. I mean, my interests should inform my books, shouldn't they?

Sure. But the question of the week isn't about informing books, it's about informing characters. My books are deeply personal affairs crammed front to back with my pop-cultural obsessions. My characters, on the other hand, need to stand on their own two feet. Each of them has to present a convincing illusion of personhood to the audience, and to do that, they need their own interests, their own opinions, which should stem not from me but from their own experiences.

Sometimes, by sheer happenstance, a character's interests and mine momentarily align. That's fine from time to time, so long as those interests truly suit the character. But I grow wary when my characters start to sound too much like me; it makes me worry I'm shoehorning myself into the story. The truly colorful among us might pull it off (Tarantino, for example, has the knack), but truth be told, I'd make a dull-as-dirt fictional character.

Believe me, I know. Because that painful trial-and-error I mentioned is otherwise known as my first finished novel. I crammed that thing so full of random digressions, pet theories, and personal diatribes, a story that should have clocked in at a taut 80,000 words wound up around 120,000 in first draft. I thought I was putting my own stamp on the tale. Instead, I was sapping the story of momentum in the interest of proving to the audience I had good taste. (Which, at 24, I almost certainly did not.)

My wife Katrina (the best beta reader/editor a guy could hope for) and I now call that First Book Syndrome. You see glimpses of it from time to time in debut novels, and way more often in manuscripts that never get that far. We writers are a quirky lot. Sometimes we lay it on a little thick our first time out the gate.

In a way, I'm glad I botched that first draft in such grand fashion. I learned more about the craft of writing trying to whip that book into shape than I ever could have had I landed closer to the mark straight off the bat.

Now, I let my characters make up their own damn minds about what they like and what they don't. Saves me the trouble, and a boatload of red ink.


Meredith Cole said...

Great blog, Chris! If your characters sound too much like you, you are in danger of ending up with all your characters in all your books sounding the same... I hate to give my characters interests that are too different from my own (like stuff I don't care about and wouldn't enjoy researching)--but I also want them to be unique.

Chris said...

That's a great point, Meredith, about avoiding topics one wouldn't care to research. What I find is, oftentimes, my characters allow me to explore topics I find interesting but would not otherwise dive into. The way I see it, they're not so much me as they are the sort of person I'd be if I were born into their circumstances...