Tag: main characters

What Makes a Great Main Character

Forgive me if you’ve seen this picture before.  I know I used it in a draft but don’t know if I ended up actually using it.  Pretend you’ve never seen it.

I’ve read a few books lately that failed to engage me.  Well, three failed to engage me so completely that I couldn’t finish them.  One engaged me well enough to finish it, the writing was good, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, the explicit sex scenes were irritating, and the main character (who was supposedly 20 years old) had the maturity of a 15 year old.  I am not interested in reading books about teens.  The last time I did that (Twilight) was enough to last me through the whole of my forties.  I’m not putting down adults who enjoy young adult fiction at all, it’s just not generally my taste.

A couple of days ago I started a great book and last night I went to bed a little early (there was no beer to keep me out of bed for) and couldn’t put down “Coil of Serpents” by Anne Stevenson.  I’ve bought every book she’s written just so I can read them because she’s not widely known in the U.S.  I had to get them on Alibris.  I bought them on the strength of loving the one book of hers my library has that I loved (“A Relative Stranger”).  It got me thinking about the importance and the subjectivity of main characters in stories.  The most important part of any story, in my opinion, is the main character.  Why people love stories, can’t put them down, is usually because they relate to or in some way care about what happens to the main character.  But what’s interesting is how many of us have different requirements for a compelling main character.

I know, for example, that not everyone who’s read Cricket and Grey really loved Cricket.  That’s kind of crucial for loving the book.  If you don’t get Cricket, if you find her irritating, then you won’t care as much what happens to her and you won’t enjoy the ride half so much.  My mom liked my book but in talking about it she is always hyper focused on Cricket’s stubbornness and her obsessing over her parents’ lies.  I get it.  She’s not the only one who found Cricket’s stubbornness irritating.  On the other hand, my friend Emma said she loved Cricket for her scrappiness and she “got” who she was.

What kind of main characters do you like?  I have no easy way of describing my favorite qualities in a main character.  Sometimes it’s easier to say what they aren’t than what they are.  I’ll list qualities I like and all the qualifiers necessary to make me sound like an asshole:

grown up – literally.  I like main characters to be 20 years old or older.  The important thing is that they don’t ACT like teens or kids.  I can’t stand general “innocence” in grown ups.  (Gentle adults whose tastes are all child like and who relates more to and acts more like children)  I like a grown up with grown up tastes and concerns and maturity.  It’s okay if the character is immature about a few things, because most of us are, but not if they’re immature on the whole.

Intelligent – I like a main character with some cognitive skills and some innate intelligence.  I’m not talking genius, just some sharpness in the head.  It can be street smarts rather than book smarts, but a little of both is always preferable to me.

Depth of character – I like a character who is multidimensional and who sees levels to things.  A character who knows there’s more to life than the surface.  A character who questions things, who considers their own philosophy about things.

Funny – I like characters with a sense of humor but that doesn’t have to mean they’re hilarious.  Hilarious can get annoying fast if that’s the main attraction.  I like a character with a wry sense of humor.  I like a character who can be both serious and humorous by turns.

complicated – I like a character with inner conflict, a person with contradictions.  Most people I know (certainly the interesting ones) have unresolved conflict in their personalities and world view.  They are very smart but have a dumb  blindspot.  They have a lot of sex but aren’t sensual.  They are physically strong and have a temper but hate violence.  They believe in love but can’t let themselves have it.  They work in lingerie factories but wear cotton grannies.  They are religious but question God.

Imperfect – there is nothing more insufferable to me than a character who seems perfect.  It’s unreal, it makes me feel like scum, and there can be no story in perfection.  It’s an author’s worst nightmare.  The perfect person is one I love to hate.  Always.

Irrevocably broken – the opposite of the perfect person.  Detectives in mysteries are famously “flawed”.  I get irritated sometimes with how broken authors feel obligated to make their detectives.  To the point where they are incapable of any healthy relationships, bent on self destruction, and not even likable bar-fly tendencies that make them assholes to everyone.  Yes, they solve the crime – whoopie.   I must believe a person is capable of evolving and of changing.  Broken is okay if there is, in due course, some evidence of growth and healing.

A cluster of characteristics I don’t enjoy in a main character: flightiness, passivity (the character just watches things happen in their life and lets things happen to them), arrogance (confidence is okay, arrogance is irritating), amorality (yeah, I like a main character with a conscience and Dexter is the sole exception to that), disloyalty (can’t relate to this, I need to trust that the main character is loyal to the people they care about – betrayal is only okay when it is part of the evolution of their character and comes with great struggle and regret), hyper sexual (I don’t relate and am not interested in characters who are largely motivated by having sex, especially when it’s indiscriminate, the only exception being with prostitute characters who do it for a living but don’t pursue it for personal appetite), adulterers (I really can’t stand characters who commit adultery and so I don’t read stories that revolve around this topic).

Characteristics I don’t necessarily love for their own sakes but which I find drive main characters very well through stories, add drama, and get them in just enough trouble to keep them from being sad boring people: stubbornness, irascibility, and personal irrational hang-ups.

In summary, my favorite kind of main characters are: complex, grown up, imperfect, learning, sharp witted, have some humor, capable of being serious, strong – but with weak spots, scrappy, independent, have a fairly well developed moral center or are in the middle of developing one, and an ability to eventually realize they aren’t always right and are capable of change.

Please tell me what kind of main characters you love best.  I will not ridicule anyone for loving completely different kind of main characters.  This is what makes writing books, reading books, representing books, and publishing them a seriously subjective arena.  Books are as subjective as art.  What makes a book great depends on what the reader is looking for, who the reader is, why the reader is reading (entertainment, edification, thrills, taken to places they’d never go in real life, etc.) so what I want, what I’m looking for and love is very personal and I can never be an expert on what is an excellent read for you.  But I do want to know what your own perimeters are for great main characters.  Share, please!

Women in Fiction: Telling all the Stories

I have never been dedicated to the feminist cause in a militant way.  I believe in equal rights for all sexes.  I believe in equal pay for all sexes and I’d be willing to march for it, to sign petitions for it, and maybe I’d be willing to fight for it on a grander stage than that.  But I am not, and never have been, a lighthouse looking for breaches against the seawall of womanhood.  I refuse to see the world in terms of Her versus Him.  I refuse to see any sex as the enemy.  I like to think we’re all equal in value but different in expression, in parts, in personality.

There are a lot of familiar stereotypes of womanhood based on what exists as the truth for the majority of women divided into nice clean identifiable groups.  There’s the fecund version of women who want to have lots of babies, as many as they can muster, or maybe even just one, but it’s vitally important to give birth.  There’s the career woman who doesn’t want children if it gets in the way of her career, she has so much more to offer than children and is (according to many of the fecund version of women) rather selfish in her preference for self aggrandizement over children.  Then there are the women who always wanted children and cherished the desire in their breasts for the great holy union between man and woman but who never cracked the code to creating that life or finding the man.  This woman pines for lost opportunity to have babies.  Next there are the women who want everything and arrogantly (according to some) think they can distinguish themselves in the professional world and turn around and pop out well adjusted babies.  Everyone who isn’t this woman hates this woman.

There’s another archetype of woman.  There’s another story to tell.  There aren’t many people telling it.

There are the women who are nurturing and caring and love children but who don’t feel it’s important that they give birth to have this experience.  There are women who aren’t particularly career driven, who aren’t bitter spinsters, and who like children and have the nurturing spirit but who feel no drive to express this with their own wombs.  There are women who just don’t have any urge to have children but who are absolutely womanly in every other conceivable way.

I realized recently that I can never tell the story of women longing to have babies.  I can never tell the stories of women devastated because they aren’t able to have them.  I am not the person to tell the stories of women who see themselves as high powered executives too busy and important for children.  I don’t relate to any of these people.  I can’t tell the story of women who mourn their reproductive services shutting down during menopause because everyone is already telling that moving story.  There’s another story.

It is tedious to me to read yet another story about yet another woman LONGING to have babies.  I don’t think it’s ignoble or stupid or bad to have babies.  Obviously I succumbed to the hormones that incite a woman’s body to produce offspring.  I can never be sorry for having had my son.  I never dreamed of babies.  I did plan on taking over the world at some point but other than that I wasn’t even career driven.  It wasn’t a question of babies getting in the way of my ambition.

The thought of  being pregnant was horrifying and terrifying to me.  The reality of being pregnant was also horrifying and terrifying to me and wholly unpleasant.  It took seven years for my baby hormones to dominate all my intellectual objections to having a child, giving birth, bringing more people into the world, the selfishness, the fucked up family I’d be bringing a being into, and the enormous lifelong responsibility I would have to that being.  My hormones won out and though I’m glad they did, they have never since been stirred to recreate the event.  I have come to understand that I only had a child because Max needed me for a mother.  Otherwise, I was not meant for motherhood.  I don’t have that desire, the pangs, the thrumming uterus that so many women seem to have.  All these years after having a baby I still relate much more to women who chose and are choosing not to than anyone else.

A woman’s inherent womanliness is not dependent on her having or wanting to have children.  There is so much misty emotional driftwood about women  being women because of their need to mother, their need to constantly nurture, to pop the goddamn babies out and when her children are grown she becomes a shell of herself because she’s been in service to children and husbands for decades and it’s all she ever wanted so when her children leave she focuses her hopes and dreams on grandchildren.

Either that or, so it is suggested constantly in popular culture, she rejects all that to be hard as a man who has no nurturing spirit, who fucks and makes money and watches football and is filled with the bile of ambition.  What’s amazing is that women with incredibly sharp brains and the desire to rise can do so and be fierce and stand up for all women to say that what we’re capable is limitless.  Yet, these women are often depicted as nothing more than men with vaginas.  Other women see them as unnatural.  I know this view has been slowly changing over the last two decades but I notice we’re a long way from understanding that these women leading their industries aren’t flukes and they aren’t unnatural, that they’re women who’ve spent their time following the lines of passion and hunger that do us all credit.  Some of them have children, some of them don’t.  They’re all women to be proud of.

I don’t, as I’m sure it often seems I do, look down on women whose true and most close desire in life is to have babies.  I think this is a legitimate and honest and wonderful choice to make if it’s an actual choice.  There’s no denying that I have a difficult time empathizing with this life choice.  I don’t relate.  I don’t empathize much, even though I keep trying.  I don’t give up.  I do, however, resent the belief that motherhood is the most sacred calling for any woman.  That’s such total rubbish.

The life choice so few women acknowledge, write about, talk about, or revere is the woman who has no desire to give birth to her own children.  As modern as this country of mine likes to think it is, there is still a very strong prejudice against women who don’t want to have children.  Women who don’t feel the ache in their uterus at the sight of babies.  Why is this such an untold version of womanhood?

I realized recently that the two heroines I’ve written so far are women who have no desire to procreate but who are unambitious for power.  In other words, they are women who simply don’t want babies, not that they’ve traded in babies to have a career or to do something else.

It feels like new language.  I can’t tell any other story because every fiber of my being screams that babies are not necessary for fulfillment in women’s lives.  I don’t see anyone telling this story and it pisses me off.  It alienates me.

What’s great about being a writer is that  I have the power to write what I know, what I think is important.  I can give voice to the unheard or underrepresented.  There are a lot more stories to tell from a woman’s perspective, many more than I know of and I fell sure that over time other writers will present stories I have not thought of or been much aware of and the more that happens, the more we veer away from the major archetypes the more truth will be revealed.

If all I ever do in my life is show a different side of being a woman, showing that our stories are diverse and multidimensional, I will feel I have done something worthy.

I’m pretty sure Sarah Palin and Michele Bachman will not be fans of my fiction.

I’m completely at peace with that.