by Samantha Wilde
|Here I am. Riding a bike.|
One of the masters of creating this kind of character is the incomparable Elinor Lipman. The only problem with her is that she doesn't write fast enough for my book a week habit.
And really what is the difference between a character who is experiencing an interesting or unique challenge and an interesting character? For me, it's the difference between buying a book and leaving it on the shelf-- because a unique, richly complicated character holds my attention even when she's doing the laundry, but an ordinary character requires an elaborate plot to prop her up and give her substance.
|My book is SO interesting, cats read it.|
Unfortunately, most readers don't want unique characters. One of the readers of my second novel, I'll Take What She Has, wrote about the book and gave me one of the most confusing compliments I've ever gotten. She wrote: "I loved the book and didn't like a single one of the characters." Apparently, my characters were too life-like. I can still remember my editor looking at an early draft of the novel and erasing a number of scenes in their totality. The trouble with the scenes? They were too close to the truth. I think she wrote something in her notes along the lines of, "no one wants it to feel like their real life."
Most real people are weird in one way or another. Life is mixed-up and crooked in a beautiful, unpredictable way. The stories I've been writing since I was a child come from a desire to understand people in all their infinite, imperfect variety.
This past weekend my family and I went camping. We had many neighbors--and quite close--at this particular campground. I got to engage in some harmless people watching (it was unavoidable). What intrigued me the most? Not the people whose stories I could guess at, but the campers next to us whose story I just could not figure out. It appeared to be a woman camping by herself with her dog. She didn't make any noise. Her dog didn't bark. She spent a lot of time in her camper. I couldn't figure out why she was there. Who would go camping if they didn't like being outside? Her behavior was so curious to me that when I woke in the middle of the night and couldn't sleep, I speculated on her circumstances and then I gave her an imaginary life I invented. That day at the campground with her could open a novel. Would she be running from something? Going towards something? Challenging herself with the trip? Escaping a situation?
Of course, this is my failure as a novelist. I don't get a plot then write a book. I get a character and then hang our with her. When my agent sent out my first novel to a series of editors, she forwarded me a few of the rejections (before I ultimately landed an editor and a two-book deal). I still remember one of the rejection emails she passed along to me. It read: "This is good writing looking for a plot."
I guess I'll take that criticism. It sure beats, "a plot looking for good writing." Although I know that plot sells commercial novels. And weird people don't. Which is too bad, since most of us are pretty weird.
It begs a question: do we read/love the books that showcase the characters we are, or do we only read the books with characters who reflect what we wish we were (or imagine ourselves to be? In other words, pretty, successful, in love, rich, living an exciting, action-packed life, etc.)?
What do you think?
Samantha Wilde is the author of I'll Take What She Has and This Little Mommy Stayed Home. She is an ordained minister, hosts a radio show called You Are Loved, has taught Kripalu yoga for 14 years, and authored a book of spiritual essays, Strange Gifts. But in her real-life, she is the stay-at-home mother to three young children with a fourth on the way. And yes, that does sound very ordinary. But she assures you that, despite the domesticity of her daily life, she is actually quite interesting. Find her and like her on Facebook.