To all the writers out there and everyone who has ever picked up a novel and read it, my question is simple: what makes a good character?
It is a question I have spent hours debating with myself and have never been able to answer with any amount of certainty. On the one hand, as a reader I want the characters I find to be inspiring. I want them to be better looking, more articulate and resourceful with greater talents then I could ever hope to posses but which I can pretend are my own for the duration of the book. I want them to have the compassion to help an old woman across the street, give the clothes off their back to a stranger, save a child from drowning. I want them to have the courage to step into the unknown, stand up to injustice, to believe that things can get better and have the initiative to make sure it happens. As a writer I want to know my characters own the skills and resources to survive the trials they will have to face, that they will triumph where I would have said “too much for me, I’m going home!” and that they will be likeable enough that people will root for them till the end. I don’t want them to fluff up their lines, fumble the ball, fall over, fade without warning at the fatal hour. And yet, conversely, how tiresome if they don’t.
From about the moment Merle and I learnt to read we had a phrase for the type of character who resembled all the attributes I’ve mentioned above: they’re just too perfect. I didn’t enjoy reading about protagonists who were always right, morally sound, fighting fit and indecently beautiful, too often accompanied by their less attractive, intellectually dense friend. They weren’t good characters, they were just downright annoying. I preferred the friend, who, although decidedly uncool,would almost certainly emerge the character I most resembled in any which character are you? Quiz.
As a writer I regularly find my characters embodying my own weaknesses. They say you should write about what you know and I certainly don’t know how to be perfect. I want them to be relatable to my personal experience which means I want them to make mistakes, forget birthdays, hate speaking in public, have bad hair days, feel the cruel hand of failure. I want them to have insurmountable defects that can’t be fixed with a quick trip to charm school and an all too timely “little life lesson.” As a reader I need to believe that, should we ever meet in real life, the character I’m reading about would actually consider being my friend, not likely if they can’t understand why I feel the need to be such a people pleaser or how infuriating it is to only find trousers that fit either the waist or the hips.
Creating Vivienne Hanesworth, our protagonist in “The Waves, the Waves,” these questions were very much in the fore of my mind. I knew she would have to be a character of great resourcefulness because of the situations she was to find herself in throughout the story. She would need to be feisty and able to take care of herself or she would be just too darned irritating; no one wants to read about a wet rag. But I was worried she might turn out too capable and consequently flat. What if her resourcefulness was a surprise? She, nor the reader, would suspect the depths of her tenacity and wilfulness until the moment she was confronted with the choice of live or die. So I decided she would be a dressmaking recluse, neat, orderly, discreet and well put together; her appearance, tall, feminine. Originally I had her down as a brunette but there is one moment in the story where she is escaping from her captors: Just when she thinks she’s made it they spot her against the shoreline of the sea and for that reason, as well as it being more visually compelling, I decided to make her a red head.
It’s hard when trying to write good female characters, not to fall into clichés. Growing up I was presented with two types of women in literature: the first was the type written about in a lot of the Victorian classics. They are timid and retiring, too simple to be bad and too innocent to have a thought in their head but that of bewildered admiration for their male saviours. The second is the exact opposite of the first. They turn up in a good number of young adult fiction and they are feisty and outspoken, petulant and eschew dresses and cooking for climbing trees and fighting with swords.
My problem with the first is obvious. In today’s culture it’s unthinkable that a female character could be written so devoid of personality and intelligence but what irks me about the second is that their newly acquired character traits have been borrowed directly from the men they had to rely on for so long. I don’t believe that because a female character is strong she has to behave like a man. She can kick ass and give a hoot about what she looks like.
This is what I think makes a good character and these thoughts have influenced how I have developed Vivienne but it is a question that is always open to revision. What do you think are vital components to creating a mind blowing, heart pounding-ly great character?