Characters are an essential ingredient in any novel. But what are the attributes of a character we like to read about? It seems to me that there are several possibilities:
- There are characters with whom we, as the reader, identify: we feel that he or she ‘is a bit like me’.
- There are characters who are different and who stimulate our curiosity: we think, ‘I wonder how it would feel to be like him/her’
- There are characters for whom we feel sympathy: ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I!’
- And, of course, there are characters whom, for various reasons, we decide we don’t like, and we keep reading about them hoping that they will eventually be punished in some way. We will probably be quite disappointed if these ‘bad characters’ triumph at the end.
I have the impression that it is quite fashionable, nowadays, to write and read about deeply flawed characters. The one that springs to mind is not a modern character, but he is a good example: Heathcliff, the central figure in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, a novel which was published in 1847. The only redeeming feature about Heathcliff, in my mind, is that Catherine Earnshaw falls in love with him. But, throughout Wuthering Heights,Heathcliff’s attitude and behaviour toward the other characters is reprehensible. Heathcliff becomes a tragic figure with whom I, for one, have very little sympathy. Still, it has to be said that he plays a dominant role in the novel, bringing misfortune to most of the characters around him.
I find it difficult to invest emotionally in writing about deeply flawed characters. In my two thrillers (one about to be published; the other just finished) there is an evil central character, but he is just evil. I haven’t tried to develop excuses for his nature; I have only tried – in one case – to provide reasons for it. Perhaps I am unforgiving, but I feel that anyone as bad as that doesn’t deserve to be made into a tragic figure.
In Sin & Contrition, there are two characters that most readers dislike, but in each case there are at least a few redeeming things about them.
There is Bettina, the daughter if immigrant parents, who is determined to do better in life – socially and financially – than her parents. She works hard to become the owner of a chain of lingerie shops, having never graduated from university. She doesn’t marry the man she loves; instead, she keeps him as her lover, while otherwise remaining loyal to her husband. She ignores her children, who manage to cheat their way into university and success. She abandons her Catholic faith to join a more socially prominent church. She argues with her brother about the care of her aging parents. Still, she remains loyal to her friends, and she does repent some of her misdeeds. She’s honest about some of her flaws, and one senses that she has limits to how far she will go.
There is Gary, the son of a working class mother and an absent father. He has a bullying disposition, and he wants to make a name for himself. He puts himself through Penn State, and has a disastrous affair with a fellow student. Gary embarks on a career as a state politician, meets and marries a woman from a good family, but he is unable to resist starting an affair with another state representative. His wife leaves him; he sinks into alcoholism, but, once rescued, he exercises restraint, is re-united with his wife and is elected to the US House of Representatives. But he refuses to provide funds to the father who abandoned him, and is unable to face his mother’s dementia. One feels that Gary will always be Gary, but at least he has learned from his mistakes, and he becomes a reasonably useful and honest citizen.
(For more information about my novels see www.williampeace.net.)