If pressed, I usually say my favourite character is Shane Donahue, the “hero” of my standalone coming-of-age novel, In Time of Trouble.
But to be honest, only one of my characters has four books written about him. And that isn’t Shane; it’s Glen Sauten. And, funnily enough, in many ways, Glen's story, unlike Shane's, is that of a hero.
Mostly, Glen is a perfectly average, normal, teen. At 17, he’s in the grade 12 class that’s headed to university but he has no idea why. He’s only a C student, and no one seems to expect more from him—especially Glen himself. He’s not much of an athlete. He can’t even beat his dad at Ping-Pong. He isn’t known for having a specific talent. He’s not the least bit adventurous. One of his favourite activities is to go for a walk in the country and listen to nature. He’s neither a rebel nor a teacher’s pet. He likes his parents and doesn't have any problems at home. He's the youngest of six, so he's kind of used to going with the flow and having other people look after him.
He never makes waves. He’s easy to ignore. He just is.
And yet, I wrote four books about him. Just over 273,000 words in total.
The Circle of Friends series (The Best of Friends, With Friends Like These, A Friend in Need, and More Than A Friend) came about because I’d been teaching high school, and I noticed that a lot of teenagers (and many adults too) tend to judge by superficial things—not just appearance, but also athletic ability, the kind of car one owns, the kind of house one lives in, popularity, and so forth. But the Bible says that God judges us by our hearts. ("Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” I Samuel 16:7.) I wanted to write a book that would illustrate that who you are inside is ultimately way more important than who you are outside.
It was obvious to me that I needed a very ordinary person with a good heart (although he may not know that yet); and someone who seemed to have it all but was empty inside.
I developed Mr. Average—Glen Sauten. As I mentioned, he’s nothing special. Okay-looking but not spectacular. He has a few good friends but isn’t popular. He’s 17, but hasn’t dated a girl. He’s not a glib talker. And his mom still buys his clothes. From what I knew about teens, I figured that Glen kind of fits the demographic for most teens who don’t see themselves as anything special.
Then I developed Mr. Everything—Charles (Charlie) Thornton. Charlie is blond and gorgeous. He’s an A student, the football quarterback, a smooth talker, smooth dresser, smooth everything. Everyone loves him. He has all the money he wants, and he got a new Mustang for his 16th birthday.
In order to have a story, I needed to create a few other characters and then turn them loose, letting the reader see everything through Glen’s eyes.
So I added another guy: Luke, Glen’s best friend since kindergarten.
And then I added three girls: Nicole, the pastor's daughter, who's not only the prettiest girl in town, but the only one who refuses to date Charlie; Nicole's best friend, Zoey; and Marta, who Glen finds really annoying, but who Charlie seems to like.
At this point, I should probably mention that Glen is the kind of character most editors hate.
That's because he's exactly what most readers don’t want the main character to be: he’s a reactor, who doesn’t do anything on his own.
If the main character doesn't do anything, the story kind of either dies or goes nowhere.
Trust me, when his two best friends start fighting, he's trying to get out of way rather break them up. He knows if he gets involved he'll be the one on the losing end.
So basically, as a writer, I did two things wrong when I wrote Best of Friends, the first book in this series. I started with a "theme" I wanted to get across and I started with a character who many experts might think couldn't carry one book , never mind a series.
But it does work. Why? Because I knew my character so well, I might as well have been living in his skin.
(By the way, if you're a writer, see below for my Character Assembly Sheet and check out my Write with Excellence website because I teach more about developing characters there.)
In many ways, Glen is me. No, I was never a boy, and I was an only child instead of the youngest of six, but I grew up in a small town and I closely relate to the feeling of being nothing special.
Honestly, I think most of us do.
And that's the primary reason the book works. Because deep inside, most of us identify with Glen, and because of that we’re cheering him on and hoping that Charlie loses—that he won't always get what he wants. And more important, we’re hoping Glen wakes up to his real potential.
Of course, eventually Glen has to act.
He starts out watching as Charlie tried to date Nicole, but ends up trying to help Charlie, trying to keep Charlie and Luke from killing each other, and eventually trying to figure out what he's learning along the way as he and Charlie attend church in order to impress Nicole. Gradually, Glen begins to discover who he is and what he wants in life.
Unfortunately, I can't tell you a lot more Glen and how he becomes a hero without giving away the plots of all four books! But as his new friend and mentor John, an African-Canadian mechanic in the local garage, says, "I think a hero is just someone who's in the right place at the right time, and does what he can to help, usually without stopping to think. Because if he did stop to think, he probably wouldn't do it."
I will say that reducing the books to the original theme I started with doesn’t even begin to do them justice. As the characters developed and took over the story, it became their showcase, not mine. Ultimately, the story is about coming-of-age, relationships with families and friends, dating, school, our need for God, our need for a support group, how broken many of us are, how God forgives, and many other things.
I'll let a few reviewers give their opinions of Glen.
"Glen is forever in the middle: between two friends who hate each other, between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, between living and simply observing life. Watching Glen try to straddle these worlds, and finally decide to choose life on all levels is exciting stuff." ChristianWeek, reviewed by author Fay S. Latka
"I have a 14-year-old son who never reads. I gave your book, The Best of Friends, to my son and he absolutely loved it. I read the first couple of chapters to him to get him interested. He finished within a week. He thinks he is a lot like the main character. He can't wait for me to get the other books." Alison Piercey, United Church Book Store, Newfoundland and Labrador Conference
“Glen, despite his quiet nature, is never wimpy and makes a fine, heroic role model for the book’s readers.” Rosemarie DiCristo, Christian Library Journal
“The authenticity of Glen’s (main character) journey is impressive.... Each book got better and better.” Herbie Kuhn, In-house Voice of the Toronto Raptors
“Glen Sauten captured our sympathies as we rooted for him to stand up and discover himself.... Lindquist has found the teen voice, but writes to the emotional needs of all ages.” Stephen and Janet Bly, authors of 100 books
See all four of my Circle of Friends novels.
*Note: Those of you who are writers should be hearing a big warning bell right now. The worst way to write fiction is to start with something you want to say, and here I am freely telling you that’s what I did!
Okay, so if you do start with a theme—an idea or concept you want to get across—you’d better go into it prepared to be flexible. The key is that you must allow the characters room to breathe. In the end, it’s better to change the theme to fit the characters and plot than to force the characters and plot to fit into your preconceived theme. When you’re married to your theme and you make the characters and plot fit it, the chances are very good you’ll end up with cardboard characters and a manipulated story. Ideally, you'll get so caught up with the characters that they become real to you, with minds of their own, and you’ll care more about them than about getting your theme across. Characters who surprise you a little are the best.
But you don't have to let them have complete control. It’s a little like walking a tight-rope, but there is a fine line between your controlling every aspect of your book, and your characters suddenly gaining control of the dialogue or the plot and taking over. (In other words, if your sweet little 15-year-old princess suddenly shows signs of becoming a serial killer, it’s perfectly okay for you to call a halt, erase the last paragraphs, and go back to where you can steer her down a different path. Of course, if you really like where the serial killer thing is going, it’s also okay to change your mind and follow her there!)
[…] Character Sketch of My Hero, Glen Sauten. […]
John’s definition of a hero makes good sense. And I love this illustration, NJ, of how sometimes it’s best to go against some of the standard rules — when it’s done well, it clearly works. Since most people don’t think they’re anything special (at least those of us sitting home reading books!) Glen is clearly a character readers can relate to. And hopefully as we see value in him, we’ll discover more value in ourselves.
Thanks for your great comment, Janet. Can I use it? :)
Wow, great advice here! I think a theme does work if you do it right, as it seems like you did in these novels. Glen does sound like a great hero – an “everyman” whom we can all relate to and root for. Great reviews! Thanks for sharing your process as well as your character. :)
Thanks very much, Bonnie.
Thank so much for offering your character worksheet. It covers more than the short one I have used in the past. Getting to know my characters is probably my favorite part of writing.
Glad to help Kathleen!
What an interesting post, explaining your process, why it shouldn’t have worked, but why it did. To me the secret to you being able to carry off your vanilla hero for four books is that he was you and your empathetic character rang true.
I certainly relate to Glen in several ways, but I honestly think something else happens when I write. I sort of “become” the character whose viewpoint I’m using. I loved acting when I was younger and was pretty good at it (lead in two high school plays) and I really focused on becoming the character I was acting. I think I somehow do the same in my writing. A degree in psychology doesn’t hurt, either! :)
Thanks N.J. In spite of his lack of anything that would make him stand out in a crowd, Glen sounds like a very appealing character. I can see how your readers would relate to him and root for him to succeed. One of the things I so admire about you is your courage and willingness to do what on the surface seems wrong but in your skillful hands turns out very, very right.
My original proposal was to have 4 books with 4 different male characters: ordinary guy, messed-up guy, high-IQ/creativity guy, and broken, dysfunctional guy. However, Moody wanted more Glen books, so I agreed.
However, the editor who came in for the 2nd book didn’t want my Glen. Instead, he wanted him to become an action/adventure guy. And he hated Shane (messed-up guy.)
Because I wasn’t prepared to compromise, and in fact wasn’t at all impressed with the new editor guy, we parted company.
By then, I had a second book written and a third started, so I finished Glen’s story – and I’m so happy I did! We ended up going places I never imagined when I was writing the first book.
I also like your work sheets. I have devised my own that are similar but can always use ‘tweaking’. I love the fact that Glen is an ordinary guy – these are what make the world go round! and really, I think they are the kind of characters that people can relate to, as you said.
I created my first character sheet years and years ago and it went through a lot of revisions until I felt it reflected me and my style of writing.
N.J. Thanks for sharing your experiences and tip sheets with us. Characterization is something I’m working on and I appreciate your help :)
It’s probably my favourite writing thing to teach! Well, along with devising devious plots. :)
Thanks for setting up the blog hop!