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How to Stay Objective and Improve Your Main Character

So how’s your relationship with your significant other going? The one with your heroine or hero, I mean. In a writer’s life, a main character is a very significant other. Now that my first published novel is about to be released, I realize how much I’ve learned about the writer-main character relationship. Guest column by Judith Rock, whose historical fiction debut, The Rhetoric of Death (Sept. 2010), received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist.

So how's your relationship with your significant other going? The one with your heroine or hero, I mean. In a writer's life, a main character is a very significant other. Now that my first published novel is about to be released, I realize how much I've learned about the writer-main character relationship.

My first novel (unpublished) was written in first person. The main character was a female cop, an ex-dancer, in a small Florida town. I'm from Florida, and am an ex-dancer who was briefly a cop. I created a character to live out things I had not been able to live out myself.

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Guest column by Judith Rock, whose historical
fiction debut, The Rhetoric of Death (Sept. 2010),
received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly,
Kirkus and Booklist. See her website here.
Her upcoming signings include the following:
San Francisco: 7 p.m., Oct. 19, Bookshop West Portal
Austin: 7 p.m., Dec. 13, BookPeople
Houston: 5-6:30, Dec. 18, Murder by the Book

My second book (also unpublished) featured her, but I switched to a close third person voice. Looking back, I think I changed the voice because I knew I'd created a Siamese twin and needed to separate us. A Siamese twin heroine is doomed to be only what the writer can be or has been or would like to be. The writer may need her too much emotionally, which can distort the writer's judgment about the book. Before I was a writer, I worked for many years as a professional choreographer. I learned that a time comes when a creator has to look dispassionately at the thing being created. You can't do that if what you've made is your Siamese twin. But if you can't look dispassionately at what you've made, you can't make it better. When neither book featuring my Siamese twin was bought, my agent said it was time to find another character and setting. I grieved as though part of me had died. Which it had.

When I finally found the main character I needed, he turned out to be a hero, not a heroine. And he's not only a man, he's a Jesuit, younger than I am, French, and living in the 17th century. We're not Siamese twins. But we care about many of the same things. People, loyalty, commitment, clear thinking, courage, figuring out what's true. We enjoy many of the same things. Dance—yes, he, too, has been a dancer—humor, cities, warm weather, good food. But, unlike me, he's living three and a quarter centuries ago. I do endless research to help him see, think, and react like a 17th century person. Though sometimes it's hard to get my 21st century tastes out of the way. For instance, in his time, everyone had at least occasional fleas and lice...

Your main character doesn't have to live three centuries ago or be the opposite gender to escape being your Siamese twin. But I do think that a writer's relationship with a main character should be full of discovery, push/pull, and surprise—like any good relationship. I'm convinced that if my guy were just another Siamese twin, he would not be on his way to publication and further series adventures!

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Writing your query? Check out The Writer's
Digest Guide to Query Letters
. It's a great,
up-to-date resource for query letter writing.

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