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Saturday, May 5

Real Life Diagnostics: Do You Connect with This Main Character?

Critique By Maria D'Marco

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and we diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Two


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through May 19.

This week’s questions:

Do you connect with the main character? Does it give you a better feel for who she is and what she wants? Is there enough happening in the beginning to catch your interest and keep you reading?


Market/Genre: YA Fantasy

Note: This is a revised submission. If you’d like to see how the writer revised, check out the original page.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

I exit the BART station, late for work, and book it three blocks up the pitched street to the deli, thinking about tonight and dreading it. Drama team kick-off. It won’t be easy to face my friends and act like I’m fine, like nothing happened, when what I really feel is lost. Hollow.

The cold breeze makes my eyes water and the low-hanging clouds do nothing to lighten my mood. This early, most of the shops along Mission Street are dark and shuttered, but light glows from Poulsen’s Bakery. The delicious aroma drifting into the street reminds my stomach I rushed out this morning without breakfast. Baking bread and spices. Cinnamon.

A memory sparks: Ben and me and a bag of warm, cinnamon rolls. Buttery and sweet, we cut first period to eat them in the park. A cop car drives by and we duck behind the picnic table, choking on our laughter. For a moment, it’s all so vivid, I’m back there, feeling Ben’s cinnamon-scented breath on my cheek, tasting the sugar on his lips. The memory is like a stab to the gut, raw and fresh, because Ben died last spring.

“Good morning.”

The voice comes out of nowhere, jarring me back, practically giving me a heart attack. After what happened to Ben, the slightest thing makes me jump. A strange boy pads along beside me in tennis shoes. He’s tall and dark and about my age, a ring of keys jingles from his belt loop as he walks.

We’re alone on the street with the deli still several doors down. I have zero interest in talking, so I ignore him and walk faster. Take the hint, dude.

Nope. He quickens his pace to keep up.

My Thoughts in Purple:

I exit the BART station, late for work, and book it three blocks up the pitched street to the deli, thinking about tonight and dreading it. Drama team kick-off [this stopped me, wondering what it meant – the next sentence doesn’t explain it, so I settled on the assumption that the MC’s friends are the ‘drama team’]. It won’t be easy to face my friends and act like I’m fine, like nothing happened, [this makes me read on, wanting to know what happened] when what I really feel is lost. Hollow.

The cold breeze makes my eyes water and the low-hanging clouds do nothing to lighten my mood. This early, most of the shops along Mission Street are dark and shuttered, but light glows from Poulsen’s Bakery. The delicious aroma drifting into the street reminds my stomach [stomachs can be triggered by smells, saliva glands gush and so forth, but stomachs don’t have brains, so cannot ‘remember’] I rushed out this morning without breakfast. Baking bread and spices. Cinnamon.

A memory sparks: Ben and me and a bag of warm [no comma] cinnamon rolls. Buttery and sweet, we cut first period to eat them in the park. A cop car drives by and we duck behind the picnic table, choking on [I read ‘choking back’ here, as they are hiding out, trying not to laugh aloud] our laughter. For a moment, it’s all so vivid. I’m back there, feeling Ben’s cinnamon-scented breath on my cheek, tasting the sugar on his lips. The memory is like a stab to the gut, raw and fresh, because Ben died last spring. [some conflict here – the memory causes fresh pain, is the message, but it doesn’t quite read that way. Perhaps referencing something relating to open old wounds to fresh pain. This also shows us that the MC has suffered this recent tragedy/loss, but that is unlikely to be the ‘happening’ mentioned at the beginning]

“Good morning.”

The voice [or words?] comes out of nowhere, jarring me back, practically giving me a heart attack. [I know this is common-speak, but it wastes an opportunity to reflect reality. No one ‘practically’ has a heart attack. Better to reference adrenaline, gasping, hesitating, jumping away from the source, etc.] After what happened to Ben, [yes, this makes me want to know what happened to Ben – along with what happened to the MC] the slightest thing makes me jump. [the first part of this sentence piqued my interest – this portion feels like an excuse almost – to who? Or an explanation for being startled by an unexpected greeting – but why?]

A strange boy pads along beside me in tennis shoes. He’s tall and dark and about my age, [the previous use of ‘boy’ infers a child or teen, is that how young the MC is?] a ring of keys jingles from his belt loop as he walks. [him walking has already been established, so isn’t necessary here]

We’re alone on the street with the deli still several doors down. [nice quick sit-rep, shows that the MC immediately considers risk status, is aware, even when startled out of deep thoughts] I have zero interest in talking, so I ignore him and walk faster. Take the hint, dude. [is this internal thought? If so, consider italicizing]

Nope. He quickens his pace to keep up. [not knowing if the ‘boy’ is a teen, but assuming he is, I will read on to find out if he’s a threat or a nuisance or ??]

The questions:

1. Do you connect with the main character?


Yes. Enough to want to learn more. The age thing with the ‘boy’ is confusing, as I tend to put someone rushing to work as being older than a teen, like early 20s, but we have nothing to ground us to that. Even the loss of Ben could be an event that could be endured by a teen, but most readers I think will attribute that kind of loss to someone older.

The reference to cutting class to eat cinnamon rolls could be high school or college, so the lack of grounding info still stands.

The initial voice and concerns led me to decide the MC was/is female, and then the reference to Ben seemed to seal it. However…for all I know, this is a LGBTQ novel, so until I read something that confirms gender, I’ll hold judgment.

(Here are six ways to make readers fall in love with your characters)

2. Does it give you a better feel for who she is and what she wants?

Hmmmmm (readers chime in here)

I know she is someone who skipped breakfast, is late for work, is headed for the bakery. I know her sig-other, Ben, died last spring, so assume this scene happens in a following season, maybe Fall (cold breeze). Memories of him are still painful, so she’s still healing.

She wants:something to eat before work, to get to work, to get through whatever tonight is without losing the fa├žade she wears for her friends.

She may work close by since she’s walking to the bakery, and we presume she would then walk on to work – plus, she seems familiar with the neighborhood. It’s early morning and she’s late, so perhaps is not a ‘natural’ early riser – or something happened the night before that left her sleepless or with little sleep.

To be honest, I know very little about this character. I have no image of her at all, not even a name with which to conjure. I’m told she’s jumpy since whatever happened to Ben, happened – but that doesn’t tell me who she is. She’s aware of her surroundings, currently self-absorbed, walking fast (so she’s fit enough to ‘book it’ up a hill), and in some kind of turmoil from some other mysterious thing that’s happened.

She assumes the ‘boy’ walking alongside wants to talk – just because he gave a greeting and didn’t bogey on? – and ignores him. I wondered why she didn’t just return the harmless (at this point) greeting. Instead she’s rude – is she always rude? Does she always assume contact with people will be a problem for her? So, she’s either got a chip on her shoulder or is paranoid or just isn’t a very sociable person.

Hard to say what she wants, beyond the obvious, and to be ‘left alone’. I could write 2 more pages on all the possibilities for her behavior, but when reading, I won’t spend much time speculating – I’ll just read on.

(Here's more on character goals and motivations)

3. Is there enough happening in the beginning to catch your interest and keep you reading?

I would read on…for a few reasons. (again, readers chime in) I want to see what the contact with the ‘boy’ turns out to be. I also want to find out what happened that is forcing her to mask her true feelings from her friends. I also want to find out who she is, what she looks like, and: how-old-she-is! :o)

Very little actually happens in the scene, until the ‘boy’ greets her. So, we read on to answer the questions created in the bits of back story/reflection and mysterious references to happenings and worries about whatever is going to happen that coming night.

So far, the MC isn’t a person to me, but I feel secure that she will be revealed enough, shortly, so I can begin to bond and envision who she is and what she wants.

(Here are five ways to hook your readers)

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

About the Critiquer

Maria D’Marco is an editor with 20+ years experience. She specializes in developmental editing, and loves the process of wading through the raw, passionate words of a first draft. Currently based in Kansas City, she flirts with the idea of going mobile, pursuing her own writing and love of photography, while maintaining her fulfilling work with authors.

Website | Twitter

4 comments:

  1. Not my read interest, but it is well written and hooks. I would stop the first paragraph at "nothing happened", and would use the remaining words a bit later.

    Well done!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Absolutely amazing critique ...

    I found it confusing, just of "jumpy" or "clunky" the way it read for me.
    And the clarity of scene was an issue for me as I read, I kept getting pulled out by the things that didn't fit, or put out of order to help visualize as I read.

    I like the premise and character intrigues me.

    Follow that amazing Critiquer's advice

    ReplyDelete
  3. I would agree, this is a scene on track to being what it needs, but not quite getting in everything it should. It's firmly tied into the MC's state of pushing through depression, and it captures that better than many writers, enough to make it appealing. The pain is real, there are specific memories to attach to, and yet the MC's got some sense of moving on. The "boy" (you really need clarity there) comes in at just the right time when the status quo has just been made clear, but before anyone has a chance to think it's lagging.

    (And I really do like how the MC notices the surroundings when the boy approaches. "The decorator sees the barstools, the bartender sees the crowd, the SEAL sees the exits"-- what a character notices, especially under pressure, is one of the best ways to bring a character to life.)

    What it could use is a few more hints to make the present a little more tangible. The MC's name should probably pop up in one of those internal lines (like Maria said, "to conjure with"). Maybe a hint of the MC's age ("first period" says regimented high school rather than college to me, but that's a tiny clue) or one mention of say "blood" or "relapse" about what happened to Ben. This section is well done but a little detached in the MC's grief-- which is what it wants to be, but the right two words here and there could add those hints of clarity and put us more fully in that person's head.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I thought teenager was pretty clear (college students don't have periods, they have separate classes; they don't have to sneak out to skip one, and don't have to worry about police/truancy). The job didn't throw me, for I too was a food industry senior rushing to my shift on evenings and weekends. XD

    ReplyDelete