Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Shortcuts to making characters interesting?

(NB: this is not a new post; I have just renamed it. It was bothering me.)

I was talking with a friend of mine the other night who took exception to the fact that a writer we had both read, a woman, uses a lot of misogynistic (and occasionally homophobic and weightist) attitudes in her characters. My friend felt that it showed that this writer must share these attitudes or she wouldn't voice them so often.

I disagreed. At first I didn't know why - it was just a gut reaction. But as we talked I was able to articulate what I was thinking - that it is much easier to create characters with nasty attitudes than it is to make 'nice' characters interesting. Perhaps this writer simply doesn't realise that she has done it so often. Perhaps this is her crutch. I'm sure if she realised she'd done it so often it was turning her readers off she might think twice about it. Or maybe not.

But that all got me thinking about how we make characters interesting. Does nice equal bland in a protagonist? How do we make nice people interesting? By having terrible things happen to them, giving them conflict to resolve, adversity to overcome, oppression to rise above? Is that enough? Certainly it is a challenge. Much easier just to give someone bad habits and a cynical attitude so they do things that they regret, or that make people around them react in a negative way, thereby creating conflict. But is that a cop-out?

The best piece of writing advice I ever got was to not make readers wonder what will happen next to your characters, but to make them wonder what they will do next. And for that, characters need to be unpredictable. And when they do act, it has to be believable and inevitable - you can't just make a nice person suddenly go and kill the neighbour's cat without giving them a very good reason. That's what makes it hard and perhaps why writers fall back on a grouchy personality to create conflict.

I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on characters from books who have been both nice and good, and interesting, without just reacting to some cataclysm in their lives.

14 comments:

artandmylife said...

Great question! Firstly I don't read a HUGE amount of fiction but definitely I like to see what people will DO rather than what befalls them. I like seeing characters evolve as well. For some reason 'A Fine Balance' comes to mind where the characters soften over time as we (and the other characters) get to know them or how circumstances change them. My relationship with characters in a book is like that with real people - just condensed.

As a writer sometimes you can let a character voice (maybe in the extreme) some of your own prejudices or fears so you can see how that pans out. Say a writer is fearful that at heart they have a tiny racist streak - maybe they can explore it via a nasty character?

artandmylife said...

Of course all the above doesn't answer your question. Any nice but interesting chracters I can think of tend to be 'supporting roles' and often "quirky" - the continually supportive friend who is a hippy earth mama etc.

Kerryn Angell said...

I like that quote too. Active characters are more interesting and engaging than reactive characters.

I don't think any person/character is just nice. So I guess 'nice' characters would be boring because they would also be one-dimensional.

Mary McCallum said...

Hi Rachael I've tried to do the odd post on your site in recent weeks but it hasn't worked for some reason. I hope this one does. This post is very little to do with 'character in novels' although it is currently preoccupying me as I have to give a lecture on that subject at Massey next month. Rather it's to tell you that I am blogging too -- http://www.mary-mccallum.blogspot.com/. Now to make up for that blatent cry for attention here's Cloud Atlas' David Mitchell on character: "Don’t write a character according to your first thought about how the character should be, because that’s probably a cliché. Take the cliché and turn it round. A bank robber shouldn’t be tough, mean and scarred, they should be gay and Welsh. That’s a good fresh bank robber. Sam Goldwyn said, 'What we need here are some brand new clichés!' Invent brand new clichés.” A 'nice' robber perhaps?

claire said...

*smile* is that the same David Mitchell whose Black Swan Green character was an unmitigatingly cliched, nice but hard done by, teenager?

Generally, though, let's be quite clear: the person with the calm and happy life with a calm and happy attitude to it, to whom little happens in the way of conflict, is not the stuff of fiction. And nor should they be... when you think about the key functions of fiction (or of art), none of them include the parading of the blandly content.
A student once asked someone I know why there is little of truth and beauty in fiction, by which she meant, what's wrong with a happy story? I think this shows a fairly simple view of what is truthful, and what is beautiful. And, to my mind, watching a character coming out at the end of fictive conflict, in whatever shape, is more beautiful and 'true' an experience (yes, the postmodernists haven't quite got me yet, but I have given in to scare quotes) than slouching in a seat on a train reading some other sod's happy story.

maggie said...

Hello Rachael (and Mary too)

I enjoyed this topic - as in my last novel, I attempted to draw a picture of a white middle-aged flawed male character who was, if not racist, then perhaps patronising towards his Pacific Island workforce - and I worried that people would assume this was my own take on things - whereas I was attempting to develop a picture of someone who was flawed in many ways (his personal relationships etc) and coming to terms with himself (through grief). I liked my flawed character in spite of his flaws - which maybe meant I was too kind to him - and then I was accused (by a critic) of "stereotyping" and "caricature" and so, maybe I failed (this particular reader).
Whereas let's face it, Nabokov succeeds in getting the reader to empathise with the protagonist in Lolita (and that is quite a feat) - and if anyone saw 'Blackbird' recently at the Wellington Festival - this was an astonishing portrayal of a less than likeable character and with a wonderful twist that left me gasping at the end - and wondering what to think... isn't that what we want - an after-taste? And may I add that I really enjoyed what Claire had to say. Indeed… who wants to read anybody’s happy-ever-after musings, whether fact, or fiction. A rider… of course, there is a risk (as in a French movie starring Audrey Tautou that I saw on Saturday – that we try too hard for the off-beat and end up doing parody – be warned if you want to have a kind burglar Mary).

Rachael King said...

Thanks everyone for your comments - interesting that nobody actually came up with a 'nice' and interesting character from fiction, though I'm sure they are out there. The point of my post I guess was just to discuss how difficult it is to write interesting characters without just giving them a list of flaws. And as Claire points out, it's difficult to read those nice characters too. Good point about off-beat becoming parody, Maggie.

Of course it helps for protagonists to at least be sympathetic, and that's why I guess not everyone can write a book that people want to read. Nobody said it was easy, but it's really good to recognise that it IS a challenge and rise to it, otherwise you fall back on cliche (how do I do an accent above the 'e' here?) and stereotype. Or, in the case of my friend's gripe, make people assume you share your characters' bad attitudes (but that will probably happen anyway).

chalrec.gmail.com said...

Er..hem... in my first novel (groan, aren't writers so awfully self-centred), I created an interpretation of the acronynm for NICE... nauseatingly, irritatingly, constantly even-tempered (page. 190 of 'About Turns'. I rest your case Rachael - they may exist in fiction, but they may be difficult and possibly unconvincing, or indeed, as you suggest, cleverly written.

Mark Haddon's 'Curious Incident of the dog in the night-time' perhaps...
or,
wasn't Anna Karenina simply too nice? Or how about George Eliot's 'Sils Marner' - you couldn't get much nicer than that!

La delirante said...

I bought "The sound of butterflies" a couple of days ago. I am loving it!!

Rachael King said...

That's great! Thanks for telling me - I love hearing about my book making it to exotic locales. :-)

Just curious - which edition do you have?

La delirante said...

Hi :) Thanks for replying and for your nice comment too :)

It is "Picador" :) Paperback edition of 2008.

Cover photograph: Stefanie Hafner.

Helen said...

Hi Rachael-

An interesting post!

My favourite "nice" character of my recent reading is Henry the punk librarian from 'The Time Traveller's Wife" - a romp of a book, which I really enjoyed - he isn't nice in a cheesey, unpalatable way...he certainly has his 'issues', but what he knows about the future creates all sorts of moral/ethical problems for him and he handles them with admirable strength of character.

The main character of Kate Duignan's 'Breakwater' is fairly 'nice', also. At least she's not hugely flawed.

There, that gives you two - and I'll keep thinking on it - I'm sure there are more!

Best,
Helen

Rachael King said...

I loved the Time Traveller's Wife. I recently read that Audrey Niffenegger was originally going to write it as a graphic novel, but decided a novel would be easier. Despite the success of TTW, she has not given up her day job as a teacher (something arty) to write more novels, which is why her next one is taking so long. It seems that Ms Niffenegger is one of those infuriatingly talented people who just goes, 'Oh, I might write a novel now' and does it amazingly well.

I think there are a lot of nice chracters out there. It's just interesting to note that they are not as easy to write as heavily flawed characters. (I seem to remember Henry as being pretty tormented)

Helen said...

Henry was tormented, but also essentially 'good' which made him a kind of nice, in my opinion.

When I think of 'nice' as a concept though, it tends to make me think of passive, emotionally clouded people - people who put other people's interests before their own or who are nice so that the reflection they see of themselves in others, is always positive...so that their 'niceness' is always questionable in its value. But I can see I'm projecting here, having been rather stuck on the issue of my own 'niceness' getting in the way of things lately. Hah. It's funny where thinking about fiction can send you in your own life stuff also.

So there could be scope for getting to the bottom of/motivations of/repression causing a character's niceness - but is that a bit Barbara Pym?

Thanks for visiting my blog, too.

Helen