Friday, August 19, 2011

A Thankless Task

I’ve been relaxing between projects by watching old movies. A Woman Possessed got me thinking how sometimes the kind of story you want to tell necessitates the kind of characters you write.

Admittedly, most of my stories are character driven, but once in a while I’ve chosen to write a certain dynamic that necessitates one character being just not as likable as my usual cast members. A Vintage Affair, for example. Or Icecapade. Or the yet to be released Lone Star where part of the plot really depends on the protagonist’s hot temper and tendency to fly off the handle. Not qualities I particularly admire, but interesting to explore (for me) in this context.

In A Woman Possessed, one of those 1950s English domestic dramas, a young doctor brings his new fiancée home to meet his neurotically possessive mother. The fiancée suffers from a heart ailment and darling Mummy is tempted to rid herself of her rival by aggravating the girl’s condition. It’s old school and uber-dramatic, of course, but it’s notable for the fact that there’s a great deal of everyone saying all the stuff you always wish characters would say in these situations but so rarely do. They talk. And they do ultimately work the situation out, although the ending sent the wrong message, I think.

Anyway, as far as characters, the American fiancée comes off the best in that she’s spunky, frank, and gracious in the face of the cold and possibly murderous reception she gets. She’s an orphan and she’s been very ill--is still having heart attacks--so her reluctance to walk away from this relationship is psychologically sound. The mother, doesn’t come off too badly because it’s her job to be borderline nutso. She’s elegant and charming and totally convincing, and as unreasonable as her wishes are, we sort of understand where she’s coming from. The least likable character is the son. His role requires a staggering lack of sensitivity to both his fragile fiancée (especially startling since he’s also her doctor) and his mother who he’s sort of avoided for the past two years he trained to be a doctor because of mama’s general over-bearingness.

The problem is, in order to get the dynamic of this story, he has to be dense as a block of cement. If he reacts like a normal bloke we won’t get this awwwwkward situation of the three of them living on top of each other with the tension mounting as the poor fiancée attempts to assert herself and the mother and household servants watching her for weakness like hungry birds of prey.

The only way to avoid the son being a jerk is to tell a totally different story. But suppose the writer doesn’t want to tell a different story? Suppose the writer simply wants to explore this dynamic and this situation and this plot?

This is the dilemma we sometimes face as writers. Readers of literary fiction tend to be a little more flexible on the issue of liability in main characters. In romance, many readers have a difficult time accepting a genuinely flawed hero.  Jerks are easier to love in real life than fiction!


  1. I actually kind of like the jerks...I never can quite believe in the non-jerks (I wonder what that says about the kinds of guys I've known... On second thought, never mind. It might be depressing.)

    Never much liked Prince Charming anyway. I always hoped Snow White would get together with the dwarves -- all 7 of them.

  2. **Splutter** Which just goes to show there's a romance novel out there for everyone. ;-D

  3. Are there any Prince Charming's out there? Hardly. So, if we want to experience love we have to accept a flaw or two or eighteen. But, I promise myself the next will be Prince Charming dammit...without the tights of course. Good blog post. Thanks.

  4. It really comes down to that sense of escapism, doesn't it? I mean, if one is reading literature with the intent of leaving off the confines of their own life--dwelling in a sense of blissful ignorance that "romance" can bring on , then true, a flawed hero is not going to sell many copies. BUT, aren't there so many of us who actually root for the flawed--who seek to find that one good and true characteristic that lies within that anti-hero? And really, isn't that what we all hope for in real life--someone who will look beyond our mess and see the true soul within?

    And one more thought...

    While I do enjoy a good romance where things are easy, I for one, really enjoy a tough read--one where things are not easy and so nicely wrapped up. Don't get me wrong, I don't hang out there for a lot of angst but genuine characters that leap off the page and slam into my psyche, grab hold and keep my heart pounding--that is an exciting read for me. Give me a flawed hero any day that is wrapped up in a gripping novel and, oh my, that is a happy day!

    Josh, I LOVED A Vintage Affair and Icecapade both--I know you weren't looking for a compliment--but there it is offered to you nonetheless. Keep writing those difficult novels Josh--they are as wonderfully compelling as all our others.

    Have a wonderful weekend--hope your writing is going well--as always we wait with longing---no pressure of course=:)


  5. I think some people do want fantasy, IE. But then I suspect these are the people least able to handle flaws in the real people around them too.

    Of course that might be unfair.

  6. Sammy, I feel like the escape is more satisfying if it feels believable, so maybe that's why I like a little more edge to my stories. Plus the sweetness at the end is so much more sweet if the characters have to work for it.

    Within reason. I mean over-the-top angst simply bores me. In fact, I have the kind of sense of humor where too much angst makes me laugh.

  7. I couldn't agree more but I'm not so sure we are in the majority. I look at bestseller lists and sometimes shake my hear about what graces the list. I like characters whose lives I could in some way relate to--that are not too far fetched that I can only be a spectator in their world. But I know many readers feel that a novel that is more based in the real and now is too much work--too much like the place they live. I sometimes wonder if it comes down to being content with your own existence as to whether you need to constantly escape to some other realm--and by constantly I mean a steady diet of fantasy or easy romance. Just a thought...

  8. I suspect sometimes the people who desire the most angsty melodrama are those who lead the most mundane lives. I think the rest of us need amusement grounded in recognizable reality. I do, anyway.

  9. flawed people sometimes behaving badly but mostly trying to live well - the things we sometimes do in anger or unhappiness or terror - you know those things that we really learn from - those are the really interesting things to read about - as well as the tenderness and caring of course! - absolutely no need to lay it on with a trowel- I really enjoyed icecapade and a vintage affair - just fabulous.

  10. I'm with you all the way on that, Minne! If there's one thing that bores me in a character it's the pretense of perfection -- because of course it's always going to be a pretense.

    Thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed both the books.

  11. Too many "likable" characters = "a bland story".

    For the record I really liked Jeff from AVA (and Robert from Icecapade), would love to see sequels for both.

    I'm enjoying the new cover gallery (with the Dutch edition of Fatal Shadows...) looks like a good time for some new posters! :)

  12. Thanks, rdafan! I'm partial to rascals, I admit.

    Hey, I just realized I'm still missing two covers from that gallery. Must talk to overworked weblord!