I’m in week 2 of a class on character development, so it’s not surprising that I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what makes characters interesting. I tend to write – and read – very character-focused stories, so making my characters feel vivid to my readers is very important to me.
Our first assignment was to write about characters who’ve stood out in stories we’ve read over time. This was surprisingly difficult for me. When I tried to think about important characters I mostly came up with plot lines or themes, or even scenes, that stood out. For example, Water for Elephants opens with a really neat scene (and yes, there’s an elephant in it), but when I looked at the book I realized that while the main character (Jacob) is interesting, engaging, and empathetic, he doesn’t stand out in any significant way from other characters I’ve read about. In contrast, Lucas, a disfigured boy in the first story in Specimen Days, by Michael Cunningham, is so strong in my memory that I’ve read his story many, many times – not because I like the story (although I do), but because I love Lucas’ character.
Memorable characters don’t have to be likeable. Grendel, in Grendel by John Gardner, is a monster – and yet he’s also sympathetic. I’d rather have a conversation with Grendel than Beowulf any day, although I might feel safer with Beowulf. Maybe.
Characters don’t have to stand out for a story to be great. If they do that’s kind of a bonus, although it also changes the reader’s perception. For example, when I think about Lucas’ story I have to remind myself of the plot details (which are quite interesting) because what sticks in my head is Lucas himself. With a different story I might recall the plot instead of focusing on a specific character.
Neither is better – but it’s interesting to look at why in one case a character stands out, and in another case I loved the character but what I remember is the story.
When I write, my focus is almost always on making the character feel real to the reader. I want my characters to feel like people you’d want to hang out with – or perhaps avoid, if it’s a bad guy. I have a few stories in the works where I want the bad guy (or gal) to be somewhat sympathetic to the reader even while he/she is doing bad things. That’s pretty tricky to do – but clearly it can be done. Grendel, for example, is sympathetic even while he’s eating a man he’s just murdered. I’m not going to go that far with my ‘bad’ characters (at least not in these two stories), but I’m trying to better understand how other authors have succeeded with this type of thing so that I can improve my own writing. I’m excited to see what I learn from the class I’m taking.