Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On Characters

What do you think makes a good character in a story?

As a reader, first and foremost, I want the protagonist to be basically a good person, even if he/she is deeply flawed, I don't want to waste my time reading a story about an evil person. The best stories are about complex people, who may have flaws, they may even be misunderstood and considered bad people, but fundamentally, they have to have a good heart.

One of my favorite heroines in literature is Scarlett O'Hara. She's a mess, but she has a loving heart (even if she's confused about who she can trust with it) and she's not mean or hateful (she's just spoiled and self-absorbed). In a way, Scarlett seems to be a kind of a proto-Baby Boomer, born into a world that catered to her every whim and spoiled almost to the point of ruining her forever. Faced with the crisis of the War, she discovers some of her real power. It is interesting that Scarlett discovers "some" of her power, but she never fully taps it. The reader knows that she is capable of much more, but by the end of the novel, she still hasn't figured it out yet. (Which leads to interesting speculation about what might happen after Rhett disappears into the mist. [And, no, my version is no where close to Alexandra Ripley's version!]) Anyway, I love Scarlett because she's multi-faceted and flawed, but does her best to cope with whatever life hands her.

I like Jim Chee in Tony Hillerman's books, because he is a person who is trying to straddle two cultures, and he wants to do the right thing. Often doing the right thing by one of those cultures gets him in trouble in the other. Sometimes Jim comes across as a trifle too naive for a cop, but he's a nice guy and he always does his best. When he screws up, he feels remorse about it. I really like that (it is too rare in today's world, fictional or real).

As a reader, I like characters who have interesting quirks: Indiana Jones' fear of snakes; Scarlett's love of dancing. As a writer, I like to give my protagonists, and even some of my secondary characters, personal quirks that set them apart. For the protagonists, it's usually one of my own idiosyncrasies because I can describe those from first-hand experience (some of my characters get up in the wee hours of the morning; some virtually survive on caffeine; some are photography nuts). Those quirks work their way into the story, and end up being the set-up for pivotal scenes: early morning conversations; late night visits to coffee shops; walks in the woods taking pictures [the big difference between my photography-obsessed characters and me is that most of them are good photographers, and I totally suck].

As a writer, my characters have developed over time. I started out writing about the kind of people I know: middle class, small town, regular folks. I wanted to explore the fact that just because someone is from a backwater town someplace in the middle of nowhere doesn't mean they are not interesting or that their lives are not complex enough to hold a reader's attention. In my more recent novels, I've branched out and written about characters in various stations of life, but they are all fundamentally trying to do the best they can to cope with the hand Life has dealt them, whatever it may be. The important thing is that none of them tries to cheat.

(Geez, I really am a pollyanna!)

Any other suggestions?


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