comments 11

My lurid past

I’ve taken a step back from my book recently and realised I need to change my heroine, particularly in the opening. It’s hard.

I originally conceived of her as a slightly innocent character, very sweet-natured, but somewhat downtrodden and lacking in confidence – both in her professional and her personal life. When the story opens, she’s just been semi-stood up by someone, and she’s also been at her job for four years and worrying that she’ll never be promoted. Worrying is also a key trait of hers; but she’s also very determined, and as the story goes on becomes more feisty … I didn’t really give her much of a back story, except that she is a middle child, with a very successful (and opinionated) older sister, and a younger brother who’s also successful in his own field, and nice but slightly distant parents. She was also teased at school for being too tall, and hated school generally.

I didn’t want to do anything more elaborate/dramatic than that, partly because I do feel (maybe unfairly) that there are already an awful lot of romance/chick lit heroines with enormous drama/trauma in their past, like an alcoholic parent or a major bereavement or they’ve killed someone in a car crash. Obviously this can be very powerful, but … this character’s about 26 and I feel that lots of lucky people her age haven’t that dramatic a back story. And this story isn’t meant to be about facing demons in her past; it’s meant to be about overcoming challenges in the here and now. Though I suppose those are always going to be affected by one’s past. Hmmm. Maybe there’s a middle ground between ‘middle child’ and ‘killed her alcoholic mother in a car crash’ (though boy, I’d like to read about that character).

Anyway, I’ll have to do something, because it’s not working. Instead of being innocent and slightly put-upon, I’m finding her childish and self-pitying. And I’m finding it hard to make her sufficiently downtrodden without giving her an evil boss, and I feel the evil boss has been done. I also had a scene with her and a far more confident and slightly bossy friend, to throw her into contrast, but now I think it’s probably not a great introduction to show her secretly resenting her friend.

Argh. If I could manage to step back from it, that would help, but unfortunately that’s really hard at the moment. Posts like this help, however.

The issue of characters’ ‘pasts’ is interesting. I was just thinking I might watch a bit of the West Wing. If you take a character like Donna, we know very little about her past – other than that she’s from Minnesota (I think?) and broke up with a boyfriend just as she left college, and decided on a total change of career as a result. I suppose that is quite a lot of info. A TV drama I guess is different, because obviously it takes place in the here and now, there’s no internal dialogue, and you have, um, actors. Ah, if only we could have actors in books.

I do know who would play my heroine in the hypothetical film of the hypothetical book: Romola Garai (as shown below in, I think, Glorious ’37). And my hypothetical /fantasy leading man is Marc Blucas. And in a strange and spooky cosmic coincidence, they appear together in the film of one of my favourite books: I Capture the Castle. I’m hoping this is a good omen.


  1. I can sympathise with you. I find it difficult to write a downtrodden heroine, because she can come across as wet and unsympathetic and self-pitying, and that can make a reader fling the book across the room.

    At the same time, you want the character to have somewhere to go, to become a better person, so it makes sense to start her at a low point.

    There are a lot of ways around this, I think, without resorting to horrific pity-inspiring back story. The main one is to make your heroine active in some way. Yours sounds pretty passive at the moment. You could make her really good at something that she thinks doesn't matter, for example…she's not getting promoted at work, but she damn well has a great talent at building model aeroplanes! Or start the story on the day where she does something completely strong and uncharacteristic, and let others' reactions show that she's not usually this way. Or (usually my favoured option) make her not realise that she's messed up at all, and trying to convince everyone around her, and herself, that she's just great. Or sometimes, too, a really strong and individual voice can carry a character through, but I think there still needs to be action.

    A good book that occurs to me that's like this is Conversations With The Fat Girl, by Liza Palmer—the heroine has very low self-esteem, but her actions make her sympathetic. Another downtrodden heroine is in The Truth About Melody Browne, by Lisa Jewell—she's pretty stuck in a rut at the beginning, but the author plunges us immediately into a mystery so she's active. (Though there is some pretty awful backstory in this one.)

    What do you think?

  2. Julie, thanks so much! Those are really useful and inspiring thoughts … I like all those options and will be thinking about which works best. My story becomes active quite quickly too and I think it improves then; it's the set-up I'm finding hard. But these are very helpful ideas. I will check out Melody Browne too. Thanks again!

  3. I think I will keep her past relatively simple, because she's going to encounter a man who has a very messy past indeed and will initially feel uninteresting in comparison – but she'll end up feeling it's no bad thing to have had a pretty uncomplicated life. There could potentially be room for a bit of comedy as she chastises herself for her 'dull past' – though self-criticism is I suspect something you have to be quite careful with as it can tip over into self-pity unless you use a very light touch. Argh, so hard!

  4. Ahh well then if the story gets good when it gets active, the easiest fix is just to cut the set-up. Feed in any information you need after the story's got started.

    I did this myself with my current heroine who was a bit of a recluse—at first I wrote about her being a recluse, and it wasn't working, so I cut it and started at the point where she actually does something.

  5. CUT EVEN MORE?! Even more of my precious opening scenes and setting-up that establish the character in her existing environment before she goes away on her scary trip, and we meet her friends, and there are some funny lines and, well, I just like them? You could be right. Hm. It's only a chapter of set-up at the moment, but perhaps it's a chapter too many. Or half a chapter too many. I will have to give this some thought!

  6. Writing a book sounds like a fascinating, if slightly fraught endeavour. It must be difficult to know how much of yourself to put into a character. And even if you don’t put much of your own experience into a book, readers will instinctively try to seek out autobiographical nuggets. I think that’s why I love abstract painting so much. It’s an opportunity to for self-expression, but in a far less tangible, direct way than writing. It resists the natural human pull towards narrative.

    Do you enjoy the process of writing? I remember watching a documentary about writers last year, and I was surprised by how many of them said they found the process painful and stressful. I’m not sure why I was surprised by that, as I can certainly relate to the physical stomach-churning stress that the creative process can produce. Although when it goes well, it feels overwhelmingly uplifting. I suppose any process that involves constant decision-making is going to produce anxiety, as you start wondering whether the route that you leave behind could have been more fruitful than the one you decided to follow.

    Wishing you well in the search for your narrative strand. I’d love to hear more about how you write and make narrative decisions …

  7. Thanks for the comment! I am fascinated by narratives/stories and how they work, especially in genre fiction – that is, romances or detective stories that follow a set patter. So I love thinking about them and I try not to get too miserable when it doesn't work. I suspect for a first novel your main character will contain a lot of elements of yourself, and the challenge is to try to see them objectively. Not sure I've succeeded quite yet, but doing my best …!

  8. To respond to your other point … I think it's impossible not to put your own experience into a book, and if you did, it would probably feel quite inauthentic. The challenge is to be objective about that experience, and to use it to create lots of different characters and viewpoints – someone referred to the novel as being 'polyphonic' ie many-voiced; it can't just be a monologue and your main character can't be in charge of the narrative, tempting though that is to do … having said that I may know the theory (in theory) but am finding the practice is very challenging.

  9. You said:

    CUT EVEN MORE?! Even more of my precious opening scenes and setting-up that establish the character in her existing environment before she goes away on her scary trip, and we meet her friends, and there are some funny lines and, well, I just like them?

    I think you sort of might have answered your own question, there, Queen. Ever heard the expression “kill your darlings”?

  10. Julie: I did it! they're dead. Now I'm wondering if the whole rest of the crew should be joining them, but that's a whole other story. Thanks for the advice …

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