(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.
A peek inside the sketchbooks of Posy Simmonds
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