Book lovers

There was an interview with the actor Gillian Anderson in the Sunday papers yesterday that touched on how, as she put it, “…it’s very helpful for an actor, at least in my experience, to slightly fall in love with the character you’re playing, regardless of what your opinion might be of them…” As if to illustrate the latter part of her point, she has even become somewhat enthralled with her latest portrayal, of the former and formidable British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (whom she’s playing in TV series The Crown).

I recall a writing teacher telling our group how commonplace, even helpful, it can be to fall a little in love with the characters about whom one is writing — at least, that is, with your main characters. This is a sentiment shared by many. Editor Alan Rinzler, for instance, notes that “a story is always more successful when the writer inhabits and holds these alter egos close to the heart.” And much advice on creative writing echoes his guidance. The characters in question may be, indeed probably are, flawed, perhaps highly so. But just as in real life, we hold them dear in spite of their faults. Also as in real life, as a writer you want others to love, or at least be able to relate to, your beloveds, to root for them throughout the text. And it is this feeling of love you have for your characters, combined with objectivity about their shortcomings and misdeeds, that helps to give them depth, helps make them live on the page.

In order to have fallen in love with them, we need to have explored a character’s history, what shaped them; must have tried to understand them, their personalities, quirks, motives. It’s as if we went home with them one night, opened a bottle of wine at the kitchen table and sat talking into the small hours about their background, disappointments and victories, confessions of mistakes and vulnerabilities, expressions of their hopes and fears. This will probably be platonic love, though it may be spiced with lust in some cases. The process may have an obvious relevance to romantic fiction, but I think it’s applicable across multiple genres.

A love for a book can be interconnected with a love for its characters

As I myself write stories that are largely character-driven, creating and developing those fictional beings is one of my favourite elements of the creating process. And given that my writing is never going to fly off the shelf and make me rich, it becomes super essential that the process is enjoyable, and I ‘spend time with’ people I appreciate.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. Mega-selling thriller writer Lee Child, for one, has counselled: “Don’t fall in love with your characters” [because] “At that point writers start to get defensive and feel a bit inhibited about putting in the bad stuff and negative characteristics.” The idea is, it seems, that a writer needs to ensure distance from their characters in order to be objective about them. Also, that it may make it hard for them to put their characters in jeopardy, not wishing them to come to harm.

Obviously, we can hardly deny that multi-millionaire and prolific author Mr. Child has a winning formula for his work — and the approach may operate differently in action-driven fiction than it does in character-driven. And yet. Whilst I see the point, and the risks, I (humbly) am not sure if I can agree with him. As noted above, we can love people — including fictional characters — warts and all. And falling for a ‘bad boy’ (or girl), is hardly unusual, is it? As for placing them in jeopardy, once we have made a character ‘real’, then real-life events tend to strike them.

Think about it from the reader perspective. On the other end of the process, enamourment with fictional characters is, as we know, a common phenomenon for readers. Personally, I often ‘fall in love with’ a character in fiction, sometimes with the relationship of a particular pairing, or even with a family, their inter-relationships and mileu. This often occurs with the books that you ‘do not want to end’, those that sometimes leave a wistful ghost behind after you have turned the last page. For a while. It’s like having a hopeless crush. Again, these characters may be flawed — think of charming but ruthlessly social-climbing Becky Sharp; the dazzling but often selfish Anna Karenina; honourable but sometimes arrogant Mr Darcy, and… Oh, thousands of others.

It’s not so much that we overlook or forgive their flaws, but more that these failings help us to identify with them. They remind us that being a complex set of psychological and behavioural characteristics is the norm. Just like ourselves. As 19th-century Scottish poet Alexander Smith put it: “Love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition.”

It doesn’t matter what genre an author writes in, nor whether their work has particular critical acclaim, being able to write characters that can impact on the reader in this way — well, it is a remarkable accomplishment.

 

References
– Rebecca Nicholson ‘I fall in love with my characters’, interview with Gillian Anderson in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/sep/08/gillian-anderson-i-fall-in-love-with-my-characters. 08 September 2019, retrieved 09 September 2019.
– Alan Rinzler, ‘Falling in love with your characters’ on The Book Deal – blog for writers https://alanrinzler.com/2009/03/falling-in-love-with-your-characters/. 01 March 2019, retrieved 09 September 2019.
– ‘21 Shades of Noir: Lee Child on John D. MacDonald’ BBC Programmes, articles https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5vZMHB0bJ2hN9h2FDbc8hKg/six-writing-tips-from-lee-child retreived 09 September 2019.

Images: Josh Felise from Unsplash; Un-Perfekt from Pexels

16 thoughts on “Book lovers

  1. I probably agree more with Lee Child. Or maybe replace “falling in love” with “respect”.

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  2. Maybe falling in love with all might be too much for me. Some I definitely do, all are dear to me, even villains. It hasn’t stopped me from killing a variety of characters (writers are serial killers) just because the story required it. There was no other way round. 🙂
    My personal conception is that in the end, all characters come from us, from inside our heads (or the voices we hear?) 😉
    So, eventually all the characters are a part of us.

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    1. Loving each character would be exhausting but no, their fate must go where it goes. All characters come from us – now you mention it, one of the ways of making them ‘real’ is often to give them something of ourselves, consciously or not – a characteristic, an experience, a habit… I guess it’s a form of self-love then? Not necessarily a bad thing – within reason!

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      1. Agree totally. Our characters come from us or people we may have crossed path with. At any rate, I tend to “build” my fiction on “real” details. Things that really happened. To me or others. Things that really were said.
        Have you rad “Breakfast in Istanbul”?
        https://equinoxio21.wordpress.com/2015/10/06/breakfast-in-istanbul-by-brian-martin-onraet-and-tiffany-choong/
        Most characters I developed from sketches by my friend Tiffany Choong.

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        1. I haven’t read Breakfast in Istanbul but I’ll be following it up – love a recommendation.
          Using an image as a starting point for a character is interesting. My main characters I can always visualise, but for minor ones, I sometimes need to find an image to help – even if I don’t describe the characters in detail.

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          1. An image? True. Works for me too. Bon week-end mon amie.

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  3. I cannot imagine not falling in love with my characters, warts and all. I end up spending so much time with them, after all, it would be difficult to continue to do so if I didn’t love them in some capacity.

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    1. I agree about spending time with whose company we choose. Characters are a bit like paper children at first, nurturing them along until they become their own people.

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  4. You’ve put your finger on why I am not a fan of Jane Austen who doesn’t seem to like her characters

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    1. Interesting point. I am not a big Austen fan either. I thought it was because I find her a bit (whisper it)… boring. But it is true that I find it hard to connect or empathise with her characters. This isn’t because they are from a past century, which isn’t generally a criterion for me.

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  5. If we don’t fall in love with character, how will we do justice to our writing 😊 – a charming read as always

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    1. I agree – it’s hard to let main characters go. Thank you for reading.

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  6. I adore my characters, even the ‘baddies’. I grieve a little when I finish writing a book, because they’re no longer such a huge part of my life. Some are still tugging at me. They want another book. Eventually, I will grant their wish in some form maybe a novella. I haven’t decided yet.

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    1. I know what you mean about the baddies! It’s like they’re family, so you’ll see something in them to love come what may.

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