Guest Post: Abigail Hing Wen on Character Development the Brutally Hard Way

By Abigail Hing Wen

After twelve years of writing and hundreds of rejections as I learned to write, I can’t quite believe my first novel is coming out in just eight weeks.

My biggest struggle had always been my characters. I read dozens of character craft books and asked for advice from character gurus like Coe Booth and Sandra Nickel.

Even as a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I would get comments like, “I feel like so-and-so has left the building,” or “we don’t want our side characters standing around like stick figures, do we?”

I was a plotter. I’d been a plotter my entire writing career, and maybe I just needed to accept and lean on that.


But then in Loveboat, Taipei (HarperCollins, Jan. 7, 2020), I went off the deep end and wrote a cast of 30 different characters. Here are my four main squeezes:

Ever is working toward becoming a doctor but nurses a secret passion for dance.

Rick Woo is the Yale-bound child prodigy bane of Ever’s existence whose perfection hides a secret.

Boy-crazy, fashion-obsessed Sophie Ha turns out to have more to her than meets the eye.

And under sexy Xavier Yeh’s shell is buried a shameful truth he’ll never admit.

The characterizations on the HarperCollins website sound so tight and precise. And the characters are, too—at least they are now.

But uncovering them was a Hurculean effort.

For years, I knew I wanted to write the story of the Loveboat. It is a niche cultural icon well known among many Asian Americans, the nickname for an actual cultural exchange program in Taiwan.

For decades since the 1960s, overseas Asian parents have been sending their American kids there to study language, culture—and to find a spouse.

I attended the program myself at the age of nineteen. I was a Presidential Scholar in high school and the program heads very cleverly went through the list of scholars and gave everyone with a Chinese last name the program for free.

The follies of youth — taking glamour shots were a thing on Loveboat and on the bucket list of things my character Ever Wong does.

Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I went along with a half-dozen other Asian American Presidential Scholars. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but it was a transformational summer for me and many of my fellow travelers.

I wanted to capture this transformation in my novel.

But my problem was, there were literally thousands of characters who could go on this trip. Who would be the main character? He or she would be changed by the experience—who needed to go on a trip like this?

I wasn’t sure. I began to write from several points of view. I dug and distilled, trying to get to the heart of what a trip like Loveboat could mean to a young Asian American man or woman.

I held many conversations with my husband, who’d attended Loveboat a few years before me, about what it had meant to each of us and to friends who’d attended as well. Loveboat was a journey of self-discover. About identity in all its facets. About understanding your cultural heritage and your relationship to it.

Eventually, four characters began to emerge. Ever Wong from Ohio doesn’t know who she is. The Yale-bound prodigy Rick needs to blow off steam. Sophie is looking for love and Xavier is a player. I wrote the entire book from their alternating views, trimming hundreds of thousands of words down to 120,000.

It was slow, brutal work, and when I was done, the novel still wasn’t working. The characters felt shallow, even to me.

One of the most important lessons on character, I’d learned from the VCFA master, A.M. Jenkins. She was the one who gently pointed out that one never wants their secondary figures standing around like stick figures. She taught me to write critical scenes multiple times, from each key character’s point of view. It was an eye opening exercise. It allowed me to fully immerse myself in the characters.

I’ve never been patient enough to really commit to this lesson, but I needed to write this story.

And so I did it. I wrote the key scenes from my main characters’ points of view. I wrote scenes from the points of view of other characters, and even played with creating a fifth POV character, Jenna Chu. A year later, I thought I’d finally done the characters justice. They all had their own voices and pages and arcs.

And then the book was rejected. 120,000 words, as it turned out, wasn’t nearly long enough to do them justice.

The two months after that moment were tough. I am grateful to my critique partners who supported and encouraged me. After much reflection, I scrapped the whole novel and started over from scratch. I chose one POV character and shifted out of third person past tense into first person present.

I wrote the entire book again from the studs.

Cynthia Leitich Smith does this with all her first drafts. She writes the whole story to find the character, then bravely deletes the entire manuscript. But this wasn’t my first draft. It was—checking my files—draft number 26.

But it worked. In the rewrite, I discovered the real reason Rick needed to blow off steam, and it wasn’t the obvious ones. I discovered why the nested love triangles had to play out the way they do. I discovered the right climax and ending. In uncovering each characters’ true essence, I ended up replotting the entire story in a creation completely new to me—a character-driven novel.

Another year later, when I was interviewing agents for representation and later, editors, the main compliment I heard about Loveboat, Taipei was that the characters are so well-rounded and multi-dimensional. People recognize them. They are nuanced and real. I’ve continued to hear this from readers.

Quite by accident, I’d taken A.M. Jenkins’ advice to an extreme and written the entire novel four times, from each character’s point of view.

I wouldn’t recommend this path to anyone. The final draft that went to copy edits and publication was number 31. But for someone who is a character-dummy, I needed to put in the work. I want to say I wouldn’t recommend it as a process for anyone.

Except that I do.

Outside Chiang-Kai Shek Memorial, by Olivia Chen and Julian Hong

Take the time to give each key character a clear arc and journey. Get to know them as if they were the hero of their own novel. Write a novel as if they are. Ask them all the interview questions you’d ask of your main character—what do they want, need, fear, hate, and love? What will it take to break them? It pays off. In spades.

So was it worth it?

I think so. I’m hoping that instead of 26 first drafts with this next project, I can shortcut it by building on the prior character work. But if my own history has anything to show for it, every project is its own challenge. Please cross your fingers for me and I’ll do the same for you.

Cynsational Notes

Abigail Hing Wen was born in West Virginia to a family of immigrants: Her mother is from the Philippines and her father from Indonesia, and her grandparents emigrated to those countries from Fujian and Shandong provinces in China.

Abigail grew up in Ohio and graduated from Harvard University and Columbia Law School.

She worked in Washington DC for the Senate, as a law clerk for a federal judge. and now in Silicon Valley in venture capital and artificial intelligence.

She also earned her Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

In her spare time, she enjoys long walks with her husband and two boys, and hanging out with friends and over 100 family members in the Bay Area.

She loves music and dances to it when no one is watching.