08/04/2010 01:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Making of a Novel: Fighting Caricature

Of the three main characters in my novel-in-progress, there's still one I can't wrap my head around: the mother. I can absolutely see and hear the daughter and the father and I know what their issues are and their backgrounds, and what decisions they're going to face. But this mother is eluding me.

Last night, I had to drive a brutally long and painful carpool through the entire Los Angeles basin at rush hour (don't ask why anyone in their right mind would do this, because the answer is that they wouldn't.) My three passengers were thirteen and fourteen-year-old girls. After the first hour in the car, we were all cranky, and tired of listening to "I Wanna Be a Billionaire" (or whatever that song is called with those words as the opening line.) One of the girls, who is interested in writing, asked how my novel was going, and I blurted out that I was frustrated with my mother character. The girls picked up this problem like a pack of wolves on the hunt, and started grilling me about the story, and offering solutions.

Their ideas were actually fantastic. The mother should be a psycho competitive mom who brings down one of her friends. The mother should be a psycho ambitious mom who cheats and lies to get her child into her college of choice. The mother should be a psycho seducer mom who sleeps with someone else's husband. (Yeah, thirteen-year-olds know all about that stuff. They grown up watching The Gilmore Girls, after all. But I will also defend these kids because they're readers of very good books. They also referenced Gone With The Wind and Pride and Prejudice at one point.)

The common thread in their ideas? A psycho mom. I kind of loved it. It suits my story. And I woke up this morning thinking how I could use the spirit of these ideas without writing a character who fell into caricature.

What's the difference? There's a great summary and excerpt of EM Forster's description on DeviantArt The main point is that real characters are not perfect. They make decisions. They change over the course of the story. They are not, in other words, psycho from start to finish.

So today, I will be thinking about whether my mother character starts out psycho or ends up psycho, and in either case, to what degree.