Friday, July 17, 2015

Characters, Characters, Characters

What makes a good character driven novel work? Three-dimensional, flawed, quirky main characters. One of my favorite books with amazing characters is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. For example, there's Scout, our tomboy lead who relates the story of that time. Her older brother, Jem, who antagonizes her as well as protects her, like most big brothers do. There's Atticus Finch, a widowed father, lawyer, and man who finds himself fighting for a black man's life during a time when the rights of the African American were few.

The secondary characters are just as real to us, Cal the maid, Miss Maudie next door, Boo Radley the recluse, the sheriff, the prosecutor, and the family that accused a black man, Tom Robinson of assaulting a white woman in the deep south.

This story is filled with childhood discovery, loss of innocence, racial conflict, and the struggle for justice in an unjust time in our history. Ms. Lee brings it all to life on the page through the interaction of her characters. Everyone has a part that builds the tension and makes us want to read more. I've read this novel many times and even though I know how it ends I have trouble putting it down once I've started. We're drawn into the adventures of Scout, Jem and their friend, Dill over three years during the Great Depression.

With the publication of GO SET A WATCHMAN, also by Harper Lee, the interest in MOCKINGBIRD has resurfaced. Reviews are mixed and I haven't read it myself, but it's a testament to the place in the reader's hearts for characters in a story they love.

That's the challenge the author must rise to. Make the characters in the story real and someone a reader can relate to. How do we do that? Great dialog, vivid descriptions, timely issues that create emotional responses, the use of all the senses. Where do we find these interesting characters? Personally, I find them at work, the grocers, on-line, family, friends...add a little imagination to stretch the truth of the day to day (which is often mundane)...ask the "what if" questions...make them likeable but flawed (because no one is perfect) and "wham" you have characters people want to get to know more about.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? But it really isn't. We have to get to know the characters ourselves, understand their motivation, where they've been and where they are going, and then we push their limits - just like life does to all of us. It can be fun, frustrating, but it is seldom easy. Find that special something that makes the character stand out - Scout only wore dresses when she had to. She'd fight and roll in the dirt if the situation warranted it. She was the consummate "tomboy." Personally, so was I, and that makes her someone I can relate to.

What do you want your readers to get from your characters? In FEISTY FAMILY VALUES and PATCHWORK FAMILY the readers see that family is more than blood and when illness strikes those we love we fret and pull together to help. They might see themselves or someone they know in similar situations and realize they aren't alone. There are ways through the tough times and people who will be there if we need them. And there's silliness, too, because we all do or say goofy things from time to time. I guess that makes us all "characters" in our own story.

Authors, I wish you godspeed on your writing journey. I hope you meet lots of feisty characters along the way.

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Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Bonnie,

We do want feisty female characters in modern fiction, whether they be young girls like Scout or older women. We've come a long way in the Western world and it is reflected in our fiction. I do like heroines who are women of courage that I can admire.

Bonnie Tharp said...

Hi Jacqui - Oh yes, heroines that are admirable are the best. I'm not one for simpering females. Or too soft a leading man either. Thanks for the comment. Have a great weekend.