Monday, July 19, 2010

More on Characters


I loved Mary Jane’s post yesterday about creating characters. How right she is that you have to give your character flaws, but still make them not entirely unlikeable; and give them good attributes but not make them entirely goodie-two-shoes.
It’s a tough balancing act.

When I began writing, the comments I got from readers as well as editors and agents were that they did not like the character. My reaction was – you’re not supposed to like her. In my early standalone novels I was trying to create women who had had hard lives and were hard people because of it.

Naively, I thought readers should realize that. It was only with time that I came to understand that, generally speaking, readers are not going to invest a substantial amount of their precious reading time with a character they simply don’t like. There are a few books out there that work with an unlikeable protagonist, but they are rare. That is the true meaning of noir, is it not? A book in which there is no one you would want to have on your side?

Even if your character is generally an unlikeable person they have to have something in them that makes the reader believe in them.

Thus when I settled down to revise Scare the Light Away, based on comments received, before sending it to Poisoned Pen, I softened the character of Rebecca by showing her vulnerabilities through such things as the feelings she has for the dog, Samson, who was her late husband’s beloved pet.
At the same time, your character can’t be all good, all the time. Boring. Think Superman. Fine if you’re writing a cartoon character or an action-movie hero, but for a complex novel? Doesn’t work.

Is there anything worse than the constantly whining protagonist? I’ve seen that in manuscripts I’ve critiqued over the years. The character who’s had a rough time, and is in a difficult situation, but doesn’t do anything about it, just lets circumstances control them, and can’t stop whining about it. That character type is weak, and weak equals uninteresting.

Point of View can make a big difference, I think, to how you present your characters. My Klondike Gold Rush series is intended to be light-hearted and funny. The main character is Fiona MacGillivray. No one has higher opinion of Fiona than she herself does. She is self-described as the most beautiful woman in the Yukon, men fall at her feet and hang onto her every word, they clamber to marry her, or perhaps just have a dance. A crowd gathers when she walks down the street.

Hopefully, two things stop Fiona from being unbearably insufferable. First, her twelve-year-old son Angus, who definitely doesn’t worship “the liquor-spotted, spat-upon, sawdust-coated, cheap wooden planks that I walked on.” And Fiona is written in first person. I think it’s a lot easier to do a comic character in first person. In third person, pointing out a person’s faults and foibles can come across as mean-spirited.

And there is nothing funny about that!

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