Notes from a Scarsdale Author: Characters Everywhere You Go

Writing fiction is generally considered a solitary profession, but an author is rarely alone.

Writing has always been considered a solitary occupation. Yes, it does require you to sit down to work by yourself with the fewer interruptions the better, but for the novelist who gets into the flow, he or she is hardly alone. A host of characters are just waiting to keep you company.

Just as in any other work situation, some you will like -- even become fond of to the point where you have to write a series. Others will annoy you, sometimes intensely, and make you grateful for the day they finally disappear. It may sound odd that authors would create characters they don’t like, but since the aim is to make fiction seem as real as possible, we don’t have much choice. A story full of likeable people would probably be missing a very important ingredient –- a satisfying plot.

That’s not to say you can’t imbue your "unlikeable" characters with some admirable traits. After all, most people have some redeeming qualities if we only bother to take the time to get beyond whatever it is about them that annoys us in particular. To find the good in your villains/antagonists -- and sometimes that can be difficult -- will surely make them more realistic and deserving of some sympathy, which, depending on the type of novel you are writing, can be crucial to the effect the book has on the reader. It still doesn’t mean you have to like them though -– especially when they are being nasty to your protagonist(s).  

However, that brings us to another pitfall –- the too-nice protagonist, the one who ends up like a cardboard cut-out, because nobody in real life is that perfect (or at least not anyone I’ve ever met anyway), and who, chances are, most readers will find annoying, if not downright unlikeable. Admit it; we’re all flawed human beings (true, some more than others) so we want characters we can empathize with. We want decent human beings who have just the right amount of idiosyncrasies, good and bad, to make us feel that we know people like this, even if the lives in the story are far removed from our own.

Well crafted characters tend to live on in the minds of readers long after the novel comes to an end, hence the popularity of certain series which allow us to revisit the character year after year. But just as it can be sad for the reader to come to the end of the road for an engaging character, for the author it can be heart-wrenching.

Those characters don’t just turn up when you sit down to write. They tend to follow you everywhere and, like demanding kids, often want to be heard when it’s least convenient. Sometimes they wake you up in the middle of the night to tell you what they are going to do next (as if they couldn’t wait until morning!) or jump into the middle of an important conversation with their silent to all but you clamor of how to get through a particular plot point based on what has just been said. Sometimes they just plain refuse to do what you want them to do –- and in most cases will strike you down with something akin to writer’s block until they get their own way when you eventually realize they are right.

But in the end, they are your creations and, as is generally the case with those kids, you’ll love them whatever they do and that eventual parting will be like sending your grown child into the world, except knowing you will probably never see them again.

To non-writers, this might sound like schizophrenia or some kind of insanity, and I have to say that when I first started novel writing seriously, I did wonder if this was normal. Then, during a writing conference, a moderator jokingly asked one of a panel of authors if she ever found herself arguing with her characters. "All the time," she replied, which made half the audience and the moderator laugh nervously but gave me an enormous sense of relief. Call it crazy or whatever, but at least I knew I was not the only one with these constant companions.

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