Monday, September 28, 2009

Episode Nine - Of Good Character

Characters - we've all got em. Unmistakable traits and quirks, virtues and undesirable habits. These attributes form the way we live our lives, they contribute significantly to directing the plot. In writing, it's no different. If you can get the character dead right, then maybe the plot will follow? Or is it a chicken and an egg thing? Let us know what you think.


  1. ECB - she taught me so many things. How not to drop a wine glass in public for a start. One of the best. Ever. Also, Larry from Carol Shields' Larry's Party. Amy Witting's Isobel, and Ella Ferguson from A Change in the Lighting. I've been thinking about these characters in terms of virtues/flaws and feeling as though they are as real and whole as people - perhaps it's something to do with the conflict between the two. With ECB, for example, you have constant access to a deep level of thought about her own desire and behaviour, her longing for beauty and strangeness, and her desire to do/be 'good'. If you didn't also have access to her thoughts about others, her own depth of empathy, and her private acknowledgement of both her flaws and her strengths, this focus on the self might come across as self-obsession, or as unreasonable levels of anxiety. Instead it comes across as entirely real, and the reader meets the situations that arise for Edith with such knowledge of her character that we can begin to predict her emotional reactions as we do when we hear of something happening to a friend. We bring the knowledge of their desires, their life 'goals' (that sounds naff) and their relative sensitivities and strengths to bear in our own emotional reactions to situations that arise in the plot. So we feel afraid, excited, disappointed etc. for them. If a character doesn't give us that information about their desires, how do we make up for that lack?
    Oops, sorry, bit of a rant.
    What i meant to say was - great show guys. Got me thinking for the day anyway :)

  2. Yeah, great show. This is a subject I've been discussing non-stop lately. Predominantly in regard to two books - Cate Kennedy's 'The World Beneath' and Andrea Goldsmith's 'Reunion'. So many readers have said or written they didn't like any or many of the characters in these books, but that hasn't necessarily influenced their overall like or dislike of the books. An interesting book in this vein is the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction - 'Olive Kitteridge' by Elizabeth Strout. The copy I own has as its subtitle 'What will you make of her?' Essentially in a series of linked stories we see Olive in different roles - teacher, friend, wife, mother...the stories demonstrate her faults, foibles and absolute moments of grace and redemption. It definitely deserved the Pulitzer for its complexity.

  3. Right on Chelsea and booklurvver. And good call on Carol Shields' Larry too. I'm also thinking of Kingsley Amis' Jake (and loads of other Amis characters). And then Miles Franklin's Sybylla Melvyn, who is a completely memorable character. Perhaps because she's shameless about revealing her negative attributes - that self deprecating quality that makes her charming without feeling sorry for herself. It's a fine balance, but I really think that if you can get it right, you've got a winner on your hands. Cause you're not just contributing a book to the world's literature - I mean, anyone can do that. You're introducing us to someone who's going to stay with us forever.

  4. Recently read The Portrait (William Jan Otten) and am surprised that I am still carrying around the voice of this novella's narrator/character in my head - the book is told from the point of view of a canvas. Beginning to read it I didn't think I would be able to sink into the 'impossible' perspective at all, but around a quarter of the way in I actually cared about this character. A canvas! Booklurvver, Olive Ketteridge sounds great, tbr now :)

  5. Favourite characters for me include Ignatius J Reilley from Confederacy of Dunces - he's just a classic comedic character, so full of flaws and arrogance and totally ignorant of them or the destruction that follows in his wake. Not so much an example as a warning, if you know what I mean.

    I think you guys are right though, that there's a preponderance of plot in current fiction. I read a lot of superhero comics too, and as a serialised fiction they're much more character-driven, so when i try to think of "characters" that's mostly what i come up with. I guess the same thing could be said about lots of TV shows - we follow The United States of Tara or House or whatever often because of our enjoyment of the characters. Novels, not being ongoing, perhaps are able to work without the need to appeal an audience's need to identify with the characters...

    What you said about likeable characters made me think about what makes someone likeable and it's different for everyone, I think - some qualities are liked by some people and detested by others. Frank Bascombe, from Richard Ford's The Sportswriter, is an example of a character I hated, but who I'm sure other people would like, or at least like to read about.

    Trying to think of other characters I've enjoyed spending time with. Having trouble, though. I'll have to get back to you.

  6. I keep thinking also of Jean Baptiste Grenouille from Perfume - who was an absolute madman, but so incredibly memorable. And not in a Hanibal Lecter kind of a way. He's intriguing and inspires analysis and stays with you. Perhaps because we also read about him as a boy? Which begs the question: are we more forgiving of evil when it resides inside a child? That's the big question of We Need to Talk About Kevin too. But Jean Baptiste is certainly intriguing, he's certainly what makes that novel I reckon. Cripes, we could talk about this forever.