Charismatic Characters (even the irritating ones!)

Continuing with my Round Robin blog posts, the topic we have been invited to write about this month is:

How do we express and expose our characters’ thoughts and emotions in our writing? How do we use viewpoint, and how do we switch between characters?

The first point I need to make is that I LOVE intense, emotional or poetic writing. My own writing might not match my ideal, but this is what I would hope to produce. Language is the key, and language also opens up places and characters.

I suppose that in a way ‘place’ is as important to me as the people who inhabit it. Landscapes speak to me – like Jon McGregor’s sparse but precise and beautifully balanced descriptions of Lincolnshire in This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, or the South Island New Zealand beach setting in Keri Hulme’s The Bone People. Place is what people respond to, and their response to somewhere – be it a landscape or a building or something that brings back a memory – is one thing that helps an author draw out their character.

It’s hard to say which kind of viewpoint works best for me – either as a reader or a writer. The idea of writing, first person, entirely from the main character’s point of view, is hugely engaging when you do it – so much easier to get inside someone’s head and go on a good old rant – but it also has huge limitations. I found this with my second novel that eventually became a first person coming-of-age story set against a backdrop of the declining clothing industry in Nottingham in the 1990s. Because my main character is a somewhat stroppy teenager as the story sets off, how do the readers get to like her? She has plenty of adversity to contend with and a fighting spirit, but each of us, as readers, probably draws a different line as to where something changes from adventurous, feisty and admirable to just plain irritating or badly behaved.

Then there is the decision to make as to whether to allow the character hindsight – so that they can almost ‘narrate’ their back story and the reader can tell in advance whether they’ve learnt from their mistakes. Personally I love writing in the present tense which mitigates against doing this – mainly because it feels so immediate and allows a reader to feel ‘in’ the situation with a character. Trying to place a reader right in a situation – maybe one of danger or where moral choices have to be made – helps them to ‘buy in’ to the character’s emotional journey and identify with it.

Our characters also need other characters to bounce off. The other characters’ reactions will tell us if someone is rejected or on the fringes and will demonstrate the day-to-day challenges they have to face. Conversely, how a character responds to a situation betrays their personality and state of mind – whether they panic, or show sympathy, or have a chip on their shoulder. I used to write in the emotion that a character was feeling too much or too literally (‘she was anxious’), but have learned to let their reaction (a body twitch or habit, a knee-jerk response rather than something that reflects their true feelings) show the reader what they really feel. And of course there is nothing better that having two intense and most-likely mismatched characters who come head-to-head in a book and fight out their space and the storyline to the end.

It is fascinating to find out how a reader views a character you have written. A friend who critiqued the first draft of my most recent novel for me said of one character: ‘what a woman!’. I loved that – that they had engaged enough to feel this about her. In writing a novel you have to come to a position where you absolutely know how your characters would respond or react to something – and make sure you let them be true to their own personality. Nothing irritates a reader more, for instance, than an ending that is clever but that is achieved at the expense of ‘keeping in character’ right to the end.

If we use third person – he, she, etc – and allow several different characters to have voices in our book then we can see the same situation but from different people’s perspectives, so a quick line of space or section break and a flip to a different character’s voice can be very effective. I tend to plan a book’s outline structure with the ‘viewpoint’ of each scene listed at the side and aim for a mix of the main viewpoints so that no one character is lost for too long in the storyline. Sometimes a character becomes so strong, or the flow of a scene feels so powerful, that I just have to follow that viewpoint despite my planning for some other one to take the fore. It feels good when the story is flowing strongly in this way.

The other thing I have learned to do better over time is to keep secrets. The reader needs to find out things about the characters and their past experiences and influences, and in real life we rarely know these things about the people that we meet. Revealing these things through conversations or plot developments or backstory makes the reader reassess what they have come to think about a character. In my most recent book one of the central characters, who is deaf, befriends a man in her village who shares her sense of internal isolation. We, as readers, know from page one that he is a killer, but she does not. It was a big decision to make as to whether to reveal this early on or gradually – should the reader be placed in a position to worry about her, or to share some dawning about this man’s past? But giving his background upfront, and then elaborating on where this stemmed from during the book, also allowed our killer’s viewpoint to become more meaningful – a chance to share his thoughts and emotions, too.

Find out how other bloggers bring their characters to life:

Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1ag
Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Helena Fairfax http://www.helenafairfax.com/blog
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Anne Stenhouse http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com 

© Anne de Gruchy

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10 thoughts on “Charismatic Characters (even the irritating ones!)

  1. Hi Anne,

    I’m really a 3rd person past tense kind of gal. Perhaps it’s because that was what I read all of my life. Although I loved Jane Eyre and Emma. I also loved The Lord of the Rings. All of that might have changed with age, though. LOL

    By the way, I would love to see an extract of her book.

    Marci

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    • Thanks Marci, and I do agree that third person past tense probably offers the widest possibilities for exploring a story. I probably don’t keep it simple enough myself! Anne

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  2. Hullo Anne, I enjoyed reading about why you find 1st person so satisfactory. I’m in awe of people who can do it. Secrets are an ongoing source of angst for me. My husband always points out that readers aren’t mind-readers and could do with a bit of a clue from time to time. I keep trying, Anne Stenhouse

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    • Hi Anne, Your husband’s right, I think, which is why I reverted to third person in my third novel – and because I had three key viewpoints. I do find that having written in the first person in the past now makes me write third person in a more intimate way. A

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  3. Hi Anne, I enjoyed your post, and especially the part about keeping secrets. It’s tricky keeping the reader guessing, and feeding just the right information. It’s even harder to do in the first person. I haven’t read The Bone People. I’ll check it out, as it sounds just the sort of book I’d really like. Thanks for the great post!

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    • Thanks Helena. There’s so much to writing when I think about it – it’s lovely the way round robins bring out all these ideas….

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  4. I do like the idea of revealing to the reader who the killer is, then making the heroine find out during the course of the book. Reminds me of the old TV show Columbo, starring Peter Falk, which was always one of my favorites. My twenty-something kids laugh at me, saying it’s boring when you already know who the killer was, and how he/she did it. But I love the interplay between Columbo, who solves the “who” easily, but who spends his time discovering “how” in order to trap the killer with ropes of steel.

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    • So true, Fiona – it was proper cat and mouse in Columbo! My book is quite psychological – exploring the background and drivers for the killer – and that was much easier to do with him revealed from the beginning, although there is plenty of additional back story as we go along. My agent is sending it out at the moment and garnering lots of praise from publishers but no deals – they are sadly wary because it crosses genres between literary and crime…

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