Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Creating characters...

The question I'm grappling with is: What makes a character resonate with the reader so that the reader cares about what happens to them?
If you don't care what happens to the characters the story is pretty much dead in the water, no matter how promising the plot.
As I develop my characters in Africa, surrounded by old and inspiring friends who may well, unbeknownst to them, lend their own attributes to my fictional friends, I'm thinking about characters in fiction that have moved me. Either to adore them to the point where I haven't wanted to finish the book because to remain present in their literary lives is far better than to feel bereft in their absence. Or to react to a character with such disdain that the book is flung impatiently aside and abandoned.
In my childhood, Anne (of Green Gables) was prissy and boring. Fling.
Pippi Longstocking, on the other hand, captured my imagination with her stripey tights and her pluck, dashing off on endless adventures with her motley crew of mates, orange plaits agape in her wake.
In high school, inspired by the heroine Tess (she of the D'Urbervilles), it frustrated me no end that Thomas Hardy should pair such a treasure with the limp, insipid, gormless Angel. Pfft.
The only reason I watched the entire movie Alfie (the Jude Law remake) was because I was trapped on an aeroplane with a TV screen two inches from my nose and couldn't walk out or turn it off. His title character was vile. He started out as an arrogant arse, played with peoples' emotions, flung them recklessly aside until they were fractured shadows of their former selves, then went on to have a miserable life. End of story. Huh? What's the point?
If the characters have no substance, there's no reason for the reader to empathise with them or become emotionally engaged.
Some of my all-time favourites from fiction whose appeal I'm contemplating are:
  • Atticus Finch and Scout La Rue, To Kill A Mockingbird
  • Troubled but gutsy Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye
  • The cast of country characters island-bound during WWII in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  • Grotesque and depraved but strangely sensitive and fragile, Grenouille, from Perfume
  • All time gun-slinging, quick-drawing Annie Oakley, the wildest cowgirl in the West, who burst into the testosterone world of cowboys and Indians, matching them on her horse and confounding them with her femine wiles and sweet-girl glamour
How to pinpoint the X-factor in characters that reel us in and keep us turning pages? Keeping them real enough to be credible, admirable enough to raise our expectations but whose failings don't repulse us to the point of rejection.
I'd love to know what you think. Who are the characters that have stuck in your heart and mind, and why?


Brian said...

I like 'Biggles' because of his aviation skills, his adventurousness, and his capacity to never fail to extract himself from the most dire of situations. I also recall being excited by 'Moll Flanders', but that was last century when I was in high school. Not much inspiration for you, I'm afraid...but then, I can't help it if my dear daughter drained from me whatever literary genes my body may have originally contained!

Georgia said...

One of my favourite books ever is Papillon - the story revolves around the life of Henri Charriere. You find yourself immersed in a story of murder, imprisonment, escape and ultimately an extraordinary feat of human endurance. It's not a fictional story but does that matter? Considering the central character is a convicted murderer, it's interesting that you become so involved with the plight of Henri.
When I was a kid I loved the Secret Seven books by Enid Blyton - I don't remember any of the individuals but can the group could be considered a character? Secret club of kids who run around solving mysteries.... what kid wouldn't be totally engaged!

Sam said...

As a girl with a penchant for the classics, how could I possibly go past the wanton lasciviousness of Cleopatra in "Antony and Cleopatra"? I still remember fondly the days in the dusty old convent classroom as a giggling schoolgirl, amazed that the crabby old nuns would emphasise the quote "he ploughed and she cropped!" over and over..... or "I wish you all joy of the worm". Only a seriously deprived nun could find joy in a worm.... ;) Nor can I forget the surreal naievete of Shakepeare's beautiful Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet". I am afraid the modern day characters simply cannot compare.

As far as childhood make- believe goes, I too loved Enid Blyton and the fun, whimsical characters from the "Tales of the Faraway Tree" and the "Magical Faraway Tree" - old Moon Face and The Saucepan Man... Fantasy at its finest!

Bonnie said...

Ahh, the magic of The Enchanted Wood and The Folk of the Faraway Tree. Enid Blyton was without doubt one of my favourite childhood authors. I was completely addicted to the sometimes tempestuous characters and her colourful, imaginitive tales. Silky, the tiniest fairy heroine had long silky hair, was innocent yet fiesty and fiercly loyal. She loved an adventure, her friends and her beloved Faraway Tree - her home and sanctuary. What was not to love about her. (I still yearn to try her 'Pop Cakes'.)
Amelia Jane was the naughtiest toy in the nursery and The Naughtiest Girl in the School was juicy, wicked and fun.
Outgrowing the childhood fantasy books and delving into novels, I discovered the inimitable character of Elizabeth Bennett, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen. She was delightfully strong, intelligent, lively, intuitive and magnetic. Although her character and the novel are widely known, it is with good reason because she is a timeless and classic fictional heroine. Her character was witty, fresh and fabulously strong-willed. As a turn of the 19th century female, Elizabeth Bennett was a heroine of her time and will provide escapism and inspiration to generations past and beyond. Like a Chanel suit, she is classic and will never go out of fashion.

Rubyfire writes said...

Thanks everyone I love your comments!
Great selection of characters (G can I borrow Papillon?) and yes, brings back memories of childhood and days spent lost in Enid Blyton's magical world.
Dad, I still need to borrow your Biggles books.
Haha!!! - Sam you're hilarious, love your description of the nuns...just as i imagined a catholic convent school to be, how ever did you turn out to be so well-adjusted??!