Getting characters right

November 18, 2013 Current writings, The Plains of Kallanash 0

I’ve received quite a few critiques now for the opening chapters of ‘The Plains of Kallanash’, and they’ve generally been positive. At the low level (line editing), there isn’t much comment; a few word changes, the odd punctuation error, and a few places where a whole or part of a sentence is seen as extraneous. At a slightly higher level, there are some scenes or even sentences which are seen as having no purpose beyond world-building (and for some that’s true, but others are necessary foreshadowing). The main issue is in knowing what exactly is going on. Some people like everything spelled out for them, and some can go with the flow. Knowing just how much to explain is a complicated business, which I will discuss in detail in another post.

The most interesting feedback for me at this stage is about the characters; do readers like main characters Mia and Hurst? What do they think about the other two members of this double marriage, Jonnor and Tella? Not everyone comments on the characters. Those who do have mixed responses, which is a worry. Part of the problem is that I have four important characters, initially, in a complicated relationship not comparable to anything in the modern (or historical) world, and there’s a lot going on in the early chapters in addition to character setup (like world-building and the death of one of the four). That’s a huge amount to squeeze into a few thousand words. So in one sense, I’m not too concerned if readers don’t quite know what to make of the characters initially.

In some ways, readers do get the basics of each character. They understand that Mia is very meek and non-assertive (even if they don’t always like that in a female main character). They get that Hurst is unassuming and practical. They get that Jonnor is self-absorbed and weak. Tella probably doesn’t get enough screen time to show herself effectively. But sometimes the messages are mixed, to say the least. Critiquers generally like Hurst for loving Mia but being self-effacing enough not to pursue her, knowing she was in love with Jonnor. On the other hand, they often dislike Mia for loving Jonnor but being self-effacing enough not to pursue him, knowing he’s in love with Tella. Interesting.

But sometimes a critiquer points out something I would never have seen (which is the point, of course). One very perceptive comment was that if Jonnor is portrayed as a weak, stupid man (a caricature, basically), it makes Mia look foolish for loving him so fixedly, when she could have had someone who really loves her, Hurst. It’s like Scarlett O’Hara hankering after Ashley Wilkes instead of Rhett Butler. It’s not a totally valid comparison, of course (Rhett Butler was the roguish ne’er-do-well, not someone any well brought up lady should hanker after), but it’s still an excellent point. Mia may be very meek and reserved, but she’s not exactly stupid; or at least, I don’t want her to be seen as stupid.

There are a couple of things that can be done to fix this problem. Firstly, Jonnor can be made into a more rounded character. I see him as a fundamentally weak man. He can be very charming, especially to women (although he feels threatened by Hurst), but when he’s under pressure or upset he lashes out and can be very aggressive and cruel. So I need to portray his charming side, both directly and through Mia’s memories.

Secondly, I have to show just why Mia fell in love with him. This is partly because of circumstance (she met him when she was just fifteen, a vulnerable age), but also partly because she reads a lot of romantic fiction (the Karningplain equivalent of Mills and Boon, or Harlequin), and Jonnor fits right in with that. She doesn’t see his weakness  in the skirmishes, she knows nothing about his poor performance in the bedroom, she sees him simply as a charming man who gets a bit cross sometimes. But he’s never, ever been cross with her, so it doesn’t affect her opinion of him.

Occasionally, it feels as though a critiquer knows my characters better than I do myself. On person asked whether Jonnor was gay. Now, that hadn’t occurred to me, but as soon as the question is asked, it becomes clear that he might very well be one of those men who is more gay than straight, but doesn’t even realise it himself. It accounts perfectly for some of his attitudes and behaviour. I don’t want to rewrite him to make him more obviously gay, but I absolutely love the idea.

So the great virtue of these critiques, whether they result in changes to the story or not, is that they make me think deeply about my characters and how they behave. For instance, would Mia really wait for ten years for Jonnor, a man who isn’t particularly nice? I think she would, but I also have to write the story in a way which convinces most of my readers that she would too. It’s a challenge, and it’s one which I would never have thought about without a forum like Scribophile.

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