Part 1: Attitudes
Whether characters are good or evil, the one aspect that sets them apart from one another is their attitude. In the examples below there are two different types of characters with unique outlooks on the same situation. Warning: one is not so nice and quite frankly I hated her so much that I wanted to delete her out of existence, but then again where’s the fun in that. This was a character that made me feel uneasy and uncomfortable. I then realised before I hit that delete key that she was someone, as a writer, I could have fun with. How boring would a story be if everyone was nice?
1) Catherine Sparse: My mother’s three year battle with cancer was, to say the least, an inconvenience. I mean, because of her, I didn’t have any time for myself. Couldn’t she have asked someone else take care of her so I could at least finish my novel without the emotional strain she put on me? She shouldn’t have taken so long to die. My dreams of becoming a writer have been seriously crushed. Because of her I’m three years behind. I can’t up make those lost three years. How could she do that to me after all I had done for her?
2) Libby Flower: My mother’s three year battle with cancer, braving the low odds of surviving, has left me surprisingly stronger after her passing. My mum would’ve wanted it that way. She was my biggest supporter and it was a shame that our roles switched in the last year of her life. She hated the fact that I had to take on the role of mother. I will always miss her cheeky grin. Not being able to write may have been frustrating and sporadic most of the time, but I don’t regret any of it. I only wish I could have spent more time with her even though she told me that I had done enough before things went horribly wrong. How I wish I could hug her just one last time.
While writing this post I wasn’t going to create names for these characters. Then wham, like a sledge hammer against a plaster wall, they told me who they were. They even left cracks in the wall because I tried to ignore them. Talk about attitude.
Back to the post.
Catherine Sparse’s attitude instantly made me not like her. How about you? What did you truly think of her? Her attitude towards her mother is just as stinky as my kids’ school socks after sports day. Deep down I’m hoping she’ll get her comeuppance, but at the same time I secretly wanted to know how she became so self-centred and cruel. I had the urge to keep writing about her to find out what kind of relationship she had with her mother in the first place. Surreptitiously, I was hoping she would end up a victim of cancer with no one to look after her. She began to grow on me like a fungus between my toes. (I don’t really have fungus between my toes.) But she does have that ickiness about her.
Libby Flower’s attitude was something I could relate to. I feel bad when I hear of anyone who is struggling with cancer. Here was a woman I wanted to reach out and hug. As a writer I would like to break her down just one more time with another disheartening moment in her life to make her stronger, but as a reader, I want to cheer her on, give her my support. I want her to achieve enlightenment and happiness.
The importance of characters good or bad (protagonist or antagonist) is that they have to evoke a response from the first moment readers meet them. If you don’t get that right, you’ll lose them. You need a connection, even if it’s one of hate and loathing. Character attitudes are the most fun to play around with. I love writing someone good then as an exercise write the same character nasty. Attitudes can say a lot about a character. Even though there are no physical descriptions, I started to conjure images in my mind of what they looked like. Names can do that too. (We will be discussing those at some point in another post.)
So how do we find the right Attitude?
- Backstory: Every moment in those women’s lives from the time they were born to the present day shaped the person they have become.
- Beliefs: Are they spiritual, religious, are they superstitious?
- Friends and peers have a habit of bringing out the good, bad and naughty side in us.
- Circumstances: Have they lost their job? Are they a timid person but when they see disaster are they the ones who save the trapped people or are they a brave talker but shy in the face of danger? Have they just come into money? Lost their homes? Have they just found the job of their dreams? These and all the other abundant circumstances you can put characters in will make them act a certain way.
- Setting: Put them in a hospital, a dark alley, a crowded train and see how they act. Imagine if your character has a crowd issue and is stuck on a peak hour train. Is your character someone who would freak out if the lights in their house went out or would they just amble to the fuse box to fix it? How would they act if they found themselves in a sex shop? (This is a great exercise to expose how your character feels about their sexuality.)
Just remember when you create a character to define them by their attitude. Their attitudes can change. We do all the time, so should your characters. Take another look at the two character studies again and ask yourself—and be honest—why do I feel the way I feel about Catherine Sparse and Libby Flower?
Until the next time …
Don’t just write with your hands; write with your head, heart and soul.
E. J. McLaughlin