The Challenge of Character
When I think about the types of books I love to read, they often include a character who is screwed up, tortured or unreliable. I’m not alone in that – hello, isn’t that some of what Fifty was about, the redemption of the tortured hero? And Gillian Flynn, I’m talking about the uber twisty people who populate your books.
So the challenge is to write that kind of character. It’s relatively easy to give a character a flaw, a mountain to climb, an attitude to get over. It’s not so easy to convincingly have them skiing down the other side looking all shiny, competent and loveable.
I’m not talking about the kind of defect that’s eventually revealed to be a misunderstanding or an adjustment of some kind. The hero who dislikes blondes because a blonde did him wrong; the heroine who won’t go out with her girlfriends ex out of loyalty.
I’m talking about deeper issues, wrong behaviour, warped standards, lying, cheating, thieving… okay I’m getting carried away. A bit. In any case, it’s safe to say I sometimes want to write a romance fiction version of Breaking Bad’s Walter White or GRR Martin’s Jamie Lannister – and get away with it.
Of course the deeper the flaw, the greater the risk the believable comeback, the redemption, the response to a kick in the pants that changes the way a character behaves is. Jamie has to lose a hand and la,la,la re Walter, I’m saving the 8 last eps for a binge.
I’ve written drunks, liars, cheats, thieves, arrogant bastards and angry bitches. It was such fun! I got to use all those zingers I could never think quickly enough to deliver in real life, on the page.
But I’ve worried about the redemptive journey for all of them. Because how damn unsatisfying is it when that happens in a two paragraph epiphany or lopes over the line in a public ‘I was wrong, but love has fixed me’ declaration? It’s finding out there is no Santa. Worse, it’s a global coffee bean accessibility crisis, it’s no chocolate in the house – for – ever.
I wrote Aiden depressed after the death of his wife Shannon. I wrote him so low he was mean with it. I wrote him so black I wondered if it was possible to pull him out and what I’d need in place for him to recover. I wanted it to be something more than magic love juice because depression is like that. It doesn’t get fixed because you see a pretty face across a crowded room and the world stops spinning.
It took some convincing from the beta team to release White Balance and then again from an editor who looked at it dispassionately not to pull it down.
Some readers said they liked it. And this morning Dear Author posted a wonderful critical review. In it Jane says:
Aiden’s grief is so real and palpable that you wonder how it is he’ll ever be able to fall in love with another woman and will I, the reader, believe in the connection between Aiden and the female protagonist.
So I got that far and I’m holding my breath, because that’s exactly what this is all about. And then my client arrives and I have to stop reading. Right there. Right on that cliff edge. This is now a romantic suspense!
We talk about work stuff and when I’m momentarily off the hook I read this bit in a somewhat shameful way holding my screen under the meeting table:
I liked that it was a number of things that sprung Aiden from his grief and not just Bailey. It made his recovery believable.
At this point, I smiled inappropriately. It wasn’t a smiley meeting. It was better than an air punch.
Two hours later I get to read this bit:
This is a romance but it’s more and not just because of the density of the storytelling. I do think that there were areas that could have been pruned, but I also appreciated how deeply into the psyche of the characters I was drawn. I’ll remember Aiden and Bailey for a while which is more than I can say for other books I’ve read of late. B
I can’t even remember what that meeting was about now.
PS: One day I want an A.