WHO ARE YOU AND WHY AM I READING ABOUT YOU?
by Angela Zeman
I’m in a funny spot in my writing life. My desk is bare. Meaning, I’ve fulfilled all writing plans and obligations to date. I don’t know what your writing life is like, but mine has always been in a constant state of overlapping projects and deadlines … what a frisson of excitement to think that as of this moment, I can write whatever I want!
At the Writers Room, where I rent space to write, I mentioned my odd circumstance to a screenwriter friend. He was as amazed as I. He’d never experienced such a thing himself. We stood there in shared awe, contemplating the possibilities. Then of course, he went back to work.
I decided to invent a character, someone new and fascinating! At that point, a sort of “fresh-start madness” grabbed hold. I rushed to my file drawer and scooped out old notes, old research material, old newspaper clippings. Two trips to the recycling barrel, about four vertical feet of pulped trees. It felt good. At home, I threw out that overflowing file labeled, “story ideas.” More clipped newspaper articles, more notes, filled notebooks. Out, out! I wanted a clean slate!
Expecting glorious inspiration, I cruised web sites (signed up for Sleuthfest 2008), scanned a Carl Jung book, read back issues of email newsgroups … and my brain slowly curdled into a bean-sized organ of anxiety. What new and original character would support a series? And a short time later: What character would hold a reader’s fascination through even one story? (Notice I no longer reached for “series.”)
Who do readers want to read about? Well, I like … to name a quick dozen: David Robicheaux; Elvis Cole; Stephanie Plum; Jack Reacher; Ellery Queen; Amelia Peabody; Sherlock Holmes; Nero Wolfe; Hercules Poirot; Easy Rawlins; Harry Bosch; Charlie Parker; Lestat — at this point realization struck. Making this list was not advancing my plot — excuse me, I mean advancing my quest for a great new character.
Writing gurus teach that protagonists must be “emotionally engaging.” Not necessarily likeable, although writers generally aim for likeable. Engaging?
Lawrence Block put together a popular anthology of stories featuring perpetrators as the protagonists. Block, who writes about a burglar, a drunk, and a professional hit man, (and others), has never let “likeable” stand in the way of creating a good character.
Lestat, Anne Rice’s vampire, might be described many ways, but in my opinion he’s spoiled, selfish, melodramatic, theatrical, and egomaniacal. However, as readers become drawn into his story (which he narrates), most end up wanting to read more. Sherlock Holmes fits almost the same description and whole societies have sprung into life out of admiration for him. Dave Robicheaux, a not quite recovered alcoholic, whose faults reap pain and havoc, portrays a deeply flawed romantic white knight. Nero Wolfe wouldn’t care whether we liked him. Jack Reacher, another type of white knight, might lend an amiable, even violent hand to a stranger in need, but his lifestyle makes sure everyone around him is a stranger. Harry Bosch, while an excellent cop, jumps from one cranky, antagonistic relationship to another. Amelia Peabody, in her rebellion against stereotypical roles for women of her generation, can be obnoxious, domineering, manipulative, thoughtless, and yet … enough.
We might care for these protagonists to differing degrees (especially if your list is completely different), but the primary link between them seems to be that they possess one or more traits unique to the point of being “over the top.” I mentioned this observation to my screenwriter friend. After some thought, he pointed out that the success of any character is “execution dependent.” (Leave it to a screenwriter to distill the process of mastering an art into two words.)
So … it’s all skill! If a writer can present Amelia N. H. Reacher to the reading public as a compelling character with a compelling story, she’s in! A protagonist could be a female, alcoholic, bullying vampire and still thrill busloads of fans. Mmmm … that seems like a whole lot of skill.
Finally, I consulted a professional book doctor (I know a lot of people), and asked how he would judge whether a character would sell. His answer: “This is not the question a writer asks … I believe if you write for the ‘sell’ then you’ve lost your edge. Write the story you want to tell, then see if there is a market for it.”
Ouch. Farewell Amelia Reacher. You see it in print, folks — the dirty two-fold secret behind the creation of successful, memorable characters: They inhabit a story a writer strongly desired to tell, and the writer told it well.
Yes, thank you for asking, I did recover from my “big-sell character” fever. Back on track.