Character: an Introspective Reflection

First: this post is not what you’re expecting it to be.

In my first novel, my main character was essentially me — something I didn’t realize until years after I’d started writing. I’d spent so long developing her looks, her thoughts, her entire personality, only to find that I could have just tossed myself in instead. What I find the most interesting about this is the somewhat creepy parallel that both Lavender (my character) and I seem to draw people in with some magical undefined quality that I cannot figure out even to this day.

Lavender is reserved, a little shy, and always doubtful of her chosen path. She is also very naive, though logical. Lastly, because she’s so reserved and because she’s been through a lot, there is a quiet strength that shows itself when necessary. In fact, that strength is so deep in her that sometimes it seems as though she doesn’t feel anything at all. That was me in high school.

I’ve changed a lot since then, while Lavender hasn’t changed except where her own experiences allow. However, even her friends mention that “There was something gentle in Lavender, something that brought out the protective instincts in those around her. And yet there was also something strong, and admirable. In short, she was a child with an ancient soul.” At the time, I thought Lavender’s character was pretty weak and so gave that as the reason her friends attached themselves to her. Other than that, there was nothing special about it.

Now, *mumble* years later, I’m seeing what I can only interpret as a similar pattern in my real life.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never been one to approach people; my friends usually come to me, and I’m never really sure why they hang around outside of the obvious “we like the same things and you’re nice” factor. Something must be attractive to them, though; friends don’t squeal and proclaim their love for you if they don’t mean it, especially those who initiated the relationship to begin with. (It just seems to me that, being the initiator, they could pull out any time they want.) But in looking at all the characteristics that make me me, I just can’t find the one that should produce such a reaction. Not that I consider myself a below-par human being, but there are plenty of people with my characteristics and quirks. Kindness, average intelligence, bookishness, a supposedly “adorable” awkwardness — put everyone like me in one place and we’d take up the entire south-east.

Barring my personal reasons for consideration, it’s quite an interesting question for an author. What makes a person likable? Are the same rules applicable to literary characters? As the author, I may have just been getting fed up with Lavender because I subconsciously recognized how similar we were — like when you meet someone in real life who’s a lot like you, and all you can see are your own flaws coming back to haunt you. This also happens in parent-child relationships, by the way, and many mentor-pupil relationships as well.

However, it’s also the case that what’s fine in real life might not be so acceptable in Litland, and vice versa. In real life, a personality like Lavender’s is (evidently) endearing to many people. Readers, however, may not be satisfied by her indecisiveness and general tendancy to let people walk all over her. Conversely, I’ve read a number of books where I really admire or empathize with the character, or find him amusing, but know that if we ever really met I would be fed up within minutes.

Any introductory CRW course or guidebook will tell you that a good character wants something so badly that the entire plot is driven by their trying to get it. This desire motivates their every action, and sometimes comes into conflict with some other desire — perhaps that of protecting someone, or of upholding their core beliefs. Sometimes the desire itself isn’t clear to the reader, or to the character. But it has to be there nonetheless. Here’s the most immediate example that comes to mind:

Everyone in this trilogy fights with the desire to obtain/control the One Ring. This is the bad desire, the desire that conflicts with each character’s original goals: saving the Shire, regaining the throne, winning his father’s love.

But is that conflict enough? Would we still like Frodo if he were more like Conan the Barbarian? Or Aragorn if he revealed a hobby of writing horrendously bad and vulgar love poems? Every personality trait that can show up in a regular human can also show up in a novel, so what are the combinations that make up a good character?

This kind of reflection is something I have been strongly encouraged to use as a language teacher, but I think it’s also good for writers. Once you start becoming aware of the technical aspects of writing, it’s easier to notice the patterns that work and, by extension, why good books become popular.

As to the crappy popular books, that’s a question for another time.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Deanne Young
    Nov 27, 2011 @ 23:55:17

    Since I began reading Juv Fic I loved the youthful characters with curmudgeonly personalities and foibles and little imperfections such as whining, not trusting—glaring at mean people, stomping foot of jerk adult-those who wake back in time and complain instead of seeing opportunity for great adventure.There’d be another one who could be counted on to always do the mature thing and never act childishly-‘the boring character” with no personality. That was because I saw my uncolorful self as all that. She’d have a colorful little sister who would break with maturity frequently to complain, accuse,fill her locker with canned goods she brought in for a food-drive a day late which would all fall on principal as she forced her to show what her locker hid;the character would sneak off and see something’s truth for herself, getting herself in a tight spot in process –friends would 1st be mad then worried reflecting on all her colorful travails and loving her more for them –she symbolized people I’d come across in my life who, for ex., mimicked the prinicipal in a very amusing skit not knowing the man was behind her, With all her childlike ways she’d still project/possess the most charity the most loyalty to friends of all in book– a handful, she’d drive Miss Boring crazy– then I recognized that the one with no personality was me,as I saw myself, and the one(s) with double the ordinary amount of spirit and charisma were those who didn’t ever wonder how personalities were formed or appreciate the diverse types of people in existence or be able to make up a scene with the colorful people around her in it, getting their personalities down to a ‘T”; people who had lots of personality as kids but had no idea as they weren’t sensitive enough to know themselves just their wants and needs.I had always been fascinated by colorful children cuz they became these selves without trying to instead of inventing their personalties. I know what you mean..As far as folks gravitating to you they do to the boring sister in the novel too /It isn’t for activities with colorful people but because they like companionship, intelligence in their companions, ideas ditto, a good sense of humor in a friend,someone to do things with,happy people around them, knowing others going thru what they are now too,perhaps have that inclination as oldest daughter of 7 to protect a weaker person.Mostly though like having someone to do things with, someone they’ve shared so much of themselves with they can talk together anytime, predict others’reactions and choices; we are alone in death so don’t want to be dead all our lives and all our deaths both. They might like the kind of folks you attract who will also now be in their lives a lot maybe the talents you and your friends come with-musicians,artists, writers, boat-racers,–or share same aspirations–see Greece or Egypt, travel, keep a stray cat,.For you in particular I think they love your bubbling personality, high IQ , how your smile lights up your entire person, your naturalness (not make-up -legally blonde stare at self in mirror narcissism of most women),general good mood,your brand of humor is also theirs–your empathy lack of apathy or your apathy regarding politics like theirs, that you are loyal and there for them that you brook no nonsense such as dramatically telling all you’re pregnant each time you’re late-your sound logical behavior predictably boring as you might think it, is the very quality they need in people around them -in other words they aren’t congregating at your door because they like all your attributes but because you ‘ll do and don’t have qualities they refuse to hang out with like you lie all the time or start fights.Besides hanging out with someone because you admire them you might do it instead because you both are free to. Everyone else is busy and you’re both bored and she tells you about Reese’s pancakes and you-all decide to make some . And can agree on a movie to watch together.Then it’s not that they find you interesting fun and perfect but that for both, interacting then is convenient safe and preferable to not.

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