Tuesday 4 May 2010

Are your Characters loveable enough?

Two writers of my writers’ group were recently given feedback from their agents regarding their just finished novels, and the feedback they received was almost identical, ‘Your main character is not engaging enough, we don’t warm to her enough, she is too cold.’ Although we writers always yearn for critical feedback when it is given our first reaction is to question it.

'Do readers really only want to read about loveable women? Does every heroine have to be “toasty”?’ my friends asked. After giving suitable expression to their understandable disappointment they moved on and agreed that the only way forward was rewriting. We had a long discussion, during a meeting and later by e-mail, what it actually means, as one agent put it, “to warm up your character”.
My first thought was, ‘Ladies, be grateful that you’ve got an agent who gives you feedback. I wish all I had to do was warming up my character.’ The more I thought about it though, the more I realised that this was no easy task. The two novels in question are historical novels, set at the beginning of the 20th century, and the heroines are part of a social class that does not encourage women to express their emotions or opinions freely.

Before our brainstorming session on solutions we questioned whether “loveable characters” are only demanded of unknown/unpublished writers, as we could all think of numerous novels by famous authors whose characters we didn’t like or care about. Some novels we finished reading despite disagreeable characters because we were gripped by other details in the book, others we abandoned. For example I have never managed to finish a Rushdie novel for the very reason that I don’t care about his characters; his showing off of his intellect and the flights of his imagination hold my attention for a limited time only.

We also realised that we did not agree at all about whom we loved/hated in fiction, so the whole question seemed so subjective that for a moment we thought it might be easier to change the agent than warming up the character.
When we finally settled down to the task in hand we came up with the following points of how we could achieve a “warmer” character. I list them here for those of you who might find themselves tackling the same task.

1)The reader must be shown the feelings the character goes through, even if we are writing in the third person and can’t enter her head. One writer of our group quoted the American poet Robert Frost as saying, ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader; no surprises to the writer no surprises to the reader.’ The writer has to suffer during the act of writing, has to give herself completely to the emotion, be it extreme pain and loss or extreme joy which is just as difficult to convey. For some writers this may be impossible if, for example, the character goes through experiences that the writer went through in her own life but has not completely digested yet; or if they are too far removed from any experience the writer ever had in her own life. If the latter is the case, I suggest using your imagination. Just go there and kill the self that watches the character so that you can become her. Let the character speak, not your self.

2)If your novel is set in a time that represses emotions and elevates good behaviour and honour to the most desired qualities in a human being, the writer who sticks to the current mantra of creative writing courses “show, don’t tell” will have a difficult task at hand. Nevertheless, human beings are human beings, and they have always found a way of expressing their emotional state. Music, poetry, literature, or any art for that matter, of the time the novel is set in can point towards the inner life of the character if she engages with it. Or the writer may have to let the character transgress at least some of the boundaries of her culture. In the end it may not be necessary to portray her as loveable at all; just giving her an emotional reality will engage the reader. She could be selfish and rude and arrogant, in a passionate way, so that the reader can hate her passionately and wants to read on for that reason. Boredom and not caring for the character is the one thing that makes us stop reading.

3)Bear in mind that the reader wants to experience change, a transformation. If the book tells only a story, an episode in the character’s life that leaves her emotionally and spiritually unchanged, we will not be interested in it. Maybe in genre fiction this is not an issue. The detective in the crime novel doesn’t need to change. The heroine of a romantic novel will be good at the beginning and at the end. Her happiness depends on overcoming the obstacles of the outer world. In literary fiction the reader however expects to be going on an emotional and spiritual journey too.

Last week I read a quote by Alan Sillitoe, who was in the news for having moved on from this world,
‘The art of writing is to explain the complications of the human soul with the simplicity that can be universally understood.’  I think that sums up the whole issue very neatly. The reader wants to be enlightened, but in an entertaining and easy manner. We want to be sure from the first chapter that following this character will teach us something about ourselves, no matter how far in place and time we live from the world portrayed in the book.

1 comment:

Jeanne Quereau, MA, LPC said...


I'm not a fiction writer, but, I really enjoyed this post. It helped me understand, of course, what a writer goes through to create meaningful characters. But, what surprised me was how much it also helped me understand myself as a reader--why I'm engaged by one writer and not by another.

It is such a wonderful service that a good writer gives us by helping us deal with the complexities of being spiritual beings having human experiences (to borrow the concept from Teilhard de Chardin).

Thanks, Fatima

Rifqa Jeanne Quereau