Oh, You’re Such a Character!

Eccentric woman with cake and teaIf you’re reading a novel and people say to a teenage girl, “We’re going to take you and gradually do things that will cause you to die”—and she calmly agrees and actually cooperates, does that sound the way you would expect her to act? And if it’s a large group of teenagers and they all behave in that same passive way, do those characters sound like real people?

Last Saturday I attended a writing group, which I haven’t done in a good while, but there I was. Over the years I’ve found that in writing groups, people will give various kinds of reactions and advice, and among the types of feedback offered, one might find:

  • very specific reactions to things in the writing (“Why does Uncle Henry buy a dog after he said he doesn’t like animals?”)
  • general reactions to that particular piece of writing (“For the first half of the story she seems afraid of everything, but then she gets brave, except you don’t explain why she’s brave now.”)
  • broad advice about writing in general (“Don’t ever start a book with a description of the place.”)

However, I don’t mean to imply that people in writing groups always know what they’re talking about. You do hear a lot of nonsense, often firmly declared as a piece of absolute knowledge, like a rule Moses brought down from the mountain and forgot to mention.

This past Saturday I heard one person giving advice to another on developing characters. The thing he said that most struck me (not favorably) was that characters must be ideal. I think he did use the word “ideal”, saying that readers don’t want to read about characters with negative traits.

That advice sounded extremely oversimplified to me. I agree that I like a positive character more than a negative one, and if a character is disagreeable enough, I don’t even want to keep reading. Nevertheless, to suggest that characters must be “ideal” with almost no flaws—well, aren’t you sitting there disagreeing with that yourself? Real human beings are not ideal. We have flaws, and when you write about characters with no faults, you’re well into comic book territory.

If that’s the kind of thing you want to write, OK. But don’t sit in a writing group with me, because I want to write about actual humans and make them as real as my skills will allow. Using myself as an example, holy moly, look at all those flaws! And look how human I am. When I’m working to develop a character, especially the major characters who will take up most of the action, I deliberately try to put something negative in there.

It’s tricky of course, as to what that negativity can be. My protagonist can’t kick a dog off a porch or snarl at someone on crutches to quit blocking the aisle. One way I try to handle that trick (and I know other writers do this as well) is that rather than go for offensive personality traits, like racism, rudeness, and so on, I use weakness. Weakness makes the characters seem more human, and it might even evoke some sympathy from the reader.

For me, probably the single most important thing I do as a writer is try to write about real people. It’s hard. It’s hard as hell, because after all, every word they say, every thought they have, every move they make, comes out of my head, as if I am all those people. This takes tremendous thought and work. To do it, I spend a lot of time thinking about who my characters are and how they would really act in each situation. With the novel I’m currently writing, I’ve found that entire chapters have gone off in a different direction by considering what the characters would do, but it’s important that people behave as they really would.

On the topic of writing about real human beings, a friend this week asked me if I had read the book Never Let Me Go by the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro. Let me go on record as saying just how utterly I hated that book. It was also nominated for a Booker prize and made into a movie, so apparently I’m not in the majority opinion here. The main thing I hated was that the characters were incredibly unrealistic. If you accept the super-weird premise of the book, that all these young people are going to be slowly killed and they don’t object to it, then within that context, OK, the people are slightly realish.

Which ain’t good enough for me. So here’s my advice at the next writers’ group meeting: if you write a bizarre dystopian novel, make your characters real in spite of the strange situation you’ve put them in. That’s a rule.

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