Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Falling in love with characters

by Rick Blechta

It’s a fact of life that we writers must find a connection with our characters in order to write effectively. Basically, if we don’t feel something about them, how can we expect anyone else to care, and care they must, or they won’t continue reading.

The second favourite child of my novel output, Cemetery of the Nameless, started life as a completely different story. I wrote nearly 70 pages with a totally different protagonist. After working for nearly two months on the manuscript, I crashed into a hard stone wall that would not budge.

The reason? I really disliked my protagonist. No matter what I did, he complained. He whined. He whinged. And I couldn’t stop him. Lord knows I tried! To borrow a somewhat rude British term, David was a total wanker. I knew wouldn’t be able to restrain myself and would likely bump him off before reaching the end of my story. Not a good situation when the narration is first person!

I’ve documented this several years ago in a post here, so I won’t belabour the point, but the solution was to keep the main idea of the story (a lost Beethoven manuscript) but change out the protagonist to one with whom I was more simpatico, one whom I liked better.

While this is the opposite end of what the title of this post indicates, I felt my personal story about a writer’s relationship with main characters in a work would illustrate why it’s important to have some kind of feeling for the people who populate our plots. Let’s look at two of the crime fictions more notable citizens.

It’s well known that Dorothy L. Sayers was more than a little in love with her creation, Lord Peter Wimsey. Read a few of these (excellent) novels and you can’t fail to see it.

Agatha Christie on the other hand came to hate Hercule Poirot — even though she wrote 33 novels and 50+ short stories about his exploits. In a matter of 10 years, she found her creation to be a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep”. Even so — probably with one eye on her bank account — she continued to write about the “insufferable” detective for another 45 years!

Why were both these series so enjoyed by readers even though one writer clearly loved her character and the other hated hers?

Because these talented writers made their readers feel something compelling about them, despite how they personally interacted with their creations.

And aren’t love and hate opposite sides of the same coin?


Anna said...

I too was in love with Lord Peter Wimsey! Blame Sayers! (Remember the scene in which Harriet, reading on the grass, glances up at the sleeping Peter and lets her eye wander casually over the details of his face and ears and then suddenly becomes aware of her own no-longer-casual state of mind?)

Rick Blechta said...

That was one of the scenes I was thinking of, Anna!

It's funny how certain scenes seem to resonate in such a strong way. I remember thinking, Well, it's about time, Harriet!

Sayers hit it out of the ballpark with that one.

Thanks for your thoughts!