On Character Development

… and what I am currently struggling with while writing.

If what I write is still around in fifty years, I want readers to be able to recognize this one thing about my style, even if everything else is a blur: When I write a character he or she is of the “right here and right now” in THIS generation and this point in human evolution. What defines US? We are not the Scarlet Letter generation, even though we were all required to read it. Modern humans — at least the majority – may judge people on surface issues but they themselves do not see themselves as bad people, even if they are –in fact — really bad people. What I try to do is take “really bad people” and make you understand several things about them at once.

Thing one: I want you to see them as they see themselves. In real life we seldom take the time to analyze how some people can live with themselves and actually be quite content with how they behave and fine with the things they do. I see the press dismissing this generation as unserious, selfish, judgmental, backward … a ton of labels that describe everything and nothing, but labels don’t allow you to know this generation of humans at all. Which brings me to …

Thing Two: I want you to like them. In spite of yourself, and especially in spite of how reprehensible the character may be, and the fact that you would never want to have to deal with a person like that in real life, I want you to want to do lunch with them … against your better judgment.

Enter Haydee and her mother Anna, two stereotypes everyone has encountered and learned to avoid if they are wise but usually you can’t because they are forces of nature you just have to deal with because they will not be dealt with, with any finality … not even after death.

I write to entertain myself, first.

But.

In the back of my head I’ve always had this goal I wanted to achieve WITH writing, beyond self entertainment. I want it to reflect the reality of who we are as human beings here and now so future generations will not look back at the wash of literature and news and say good riddance to them, they were greedy, profligate, self serving, ignorant, cynical wastrels or zealots or intransigent hate mongers or what ever the surface impression history presents about us.

Oh. We are all of that bad stuff, don’t misunderstand me … but I want the reader to see how we rationalized it in the here and now and make them wish they were here in the wild west days on the edge of the abyss. I want you to like my characters even though you shouldn’t. You really — if you knew what was good for you — shouldn’t.

From a romance writer perspective, I want the reader to stop searching for Prince Charming and start seeing the charm of the broken works of art right there in front of them. Once you understand them — once you can see them the way they see themselves, you will find you love the flaws most of all.

That’s my ultimate goal, anyway … and why it takes me awhile to flesh out the story once it’s written.

Plot first. I don’t want it to be character driven. It has to be the structure of the story that pulls you along. But. The characters need to keep you turning the page saying “Oh.my.god.” every twenty minutes or so.

Heh. And it all started with a friend saying a guy named Howard simply COULD NOT BE HOT.

14 comments

  1. Maureen Nov 18

    What a brilliant analysis of the novelist’s (at least the SERIOUS novelist’s) goals: Show the reader the humanity of the characters! Recognize that we all have flaws–except for this one former boyfriend who claimed all flaws encountered were other people’s flaws!

    What’s even more brilliant about it is that the seriousness of the writer’s intention does NOT require a “serious” or “scholarly” novel–it simply requires excellence in writing. Romance novels, comic novels, genre fiction of all kinds are just as good as “literature” at presenting these truths. Maybe even more so, because the “truths” are wrapped up in an entertaining, highly enjoyable reading experience.

    So, Cindy, do you prescribe LARGE spoonfuls of sugar to make the medicine go down?

  2. FerfeLaBat Nov 18

    Interesting question. Actually. No. If you need to take medicine, and everyone does at some point in time, a doctors job is to make you want it no matter how bad it tastes … because you genuinely need it and you shouldn’t be craving it later when you don’t need it.

    Your brain – the part not busy keeping you alive at any give moment – needs new perspectives, some of which may hurt your head a little going down. My job as a writer (and keep in mind I am a rank amateur so don’t take any advice I ever give on writing as gospel) is to make you want that. You need to want that even though you don’t always like that.

    Of course tricking people is part of making them want something they SHOULDN’T have and that’s where sugar comes in … That’s the lazy way out. I’m not above it, but I really truly prefer to get across a full appreciation for the bad things because ignoring them doesn’t solve the problem, just as ignoring an illness doesn’t cure the illness. Understanding it … REALLY getting to know it in all facets … THAT’S when you’ve got a handle on the badness. That’s when the writing and hopefully the reading gets entertaining.

    For me? That’s the fun part.

    I kind of like your former BF’s perspective, btw. I may have to steal that if you don’t mind ;-)

  3. squathole Nov 22

    I recently completed a novel by Jess Walter, “Land of the Blind,” which included several pages of author interview and commentary in which he made similar points to those you raise here. Overall, he bristles at the false distinction between “character-driven” and “plot-driven” literature.

  4. ann v Dec 4

    http://bythebroomstick.blogspot.com/2010/11/book-review-revenge-is-dish-best-served.html

    and Angie in Washington gave you a thumbs up in a post on Daily Kos (IRONIC)

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2010/11/27/923592/-SEGO:-Lets-get-cozy

    so put the drambuie down – or crack open a bottle, whatever gets it written – and get back to work

    Oh, and Eva posted on her blog. Well, that makes sense – we’re only a little over a year away from the end of the world.

  5. FerfeLaBat Dec 4

    Good lord who reviews a book five years out of print?

  6. FerfeLaBat Dec 4

    One post on Nov 18th saying she’s going to post does not a blog make. Besides.

  7. ann v Dec 4

    “Besides”???? So much weight for 7 letters to carry.

    Good books get reviewed years and years out. Spam/pulp like I turn out doesn’t even get reviewed the year its released (but it still makes me some pocket change, so I don’t give a rat’s patootie).

  8. FerfeLaBat Dec 4

    *EYE ROLL* Ever cook on Stainless Steel? I just bought Calphalon from Kohls online and I have a feeling it was a mistake but it’s shiny, you know?

  9. ann v Dec 4

    look on the bottom of the pan – does it say made in china??? If so, it’s not stainless steel, no matter what it’s marketed at.

    I have a 16+ yo set of Revere Wear, stainless steel-copper bottom pots/pans. That is what I prefer to cook on. I am screwed when they wear out, if ever. New Revere Wear sucks – I bought a second frying pan maybe 3 years ago. Awful. In the garbage in less than 10 uses.

  10. FerfeLaBat Dec 4

    We used to have a cheep set of Revere Wear. Gave it away. I bought online. I have no idea where it’s made, I’ll let you know when it arrives. isn’t everything made in China?

  11. FerfeLaBat Dec 4

    As for the Daily Kos post – flattering and entirely apt. If you did not know me and you only read that book, you’d think I was a flaming liberal.

  12. ann v Dec 4

    Not “flaming” – tacit endorseement of pre-marital sex and potential promiscuity, plus tolerance by one character of another character whom she thinks is gay doesn’t qualify as embracing a flaming liberal agenda. :-P

  13. ann v Dec 4

    Have her donate to a needle exchange program, hand out flyers on the legalization of marijuana and free condoms in HS bathrooms…then you’re moving a little closer ;-)

  14. ann v Dec 4

    Our local true value has tools separated – the various tool sections have within them their own Made in America section.

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