You might have wondered why I rarely write about the nuts and bolts of the writing craft. Generally I can answer a question about writing, and then I’m off and running. But basically my mind and soul do not run in that direction. I am fascinated and experienced in the act of creativity itself. That is my gift. And I encourage myself by encouraging others.
But the other day, my friend and writer, Mary Ann, wanted to know how a fiction writer created a character that a reader liked immediately. I replied with the old saw, “If you want a reader to like the character, have him rescue a dog. If you want them to hate the character, have him kick the dog.”
This exact tool was recently used in the television show ‘Person of Interest’. Have you seen it? It can be quite violent, was leaning almost too much so for me, but then they brought in a dog for the lead characters. The ultra-tough main character, John Reese, saved the dog. We love him for it. The dog was needed to give a soft side to the people–we all love that dog and the men’s reactions to him. We love them for loving the dog, and because the dog loves them.
Back to the discussion at hand–Mary Ann went on to say that she was reading A Caribbean Mystery, by Agatha Christie. We agreed to favoring Christie’s earlier works, and Mary Ann found this one, published in 1964, not one of the Dame’s best, but worthy of reading. Christie was a master in making a character likable, even those who turned out to be the perpertrator of the dirty deed, which I think may be cheating a bit, but Mary Ann and I both delight in Christie’s command of language and classy tone (and all that tea drinking that goes on in her stories.)
Mary Ann said she liked Miss Marple on the first page of the book. Why? Was it because Miss Marple listened to the old man, and Mary Ann likes that about a person? I’m sure that’s a huge part of it.
Intrigued, I decided to read A Caribbean Mystery with Mary Ann and to dust off some of the gray cells of old knowledge about drawing character, which is my absolutely favorite thing to do. I’m having such a good time rediscovering the art of drawing character that thought I’d share my observations with you.
- First off, I want to point out that a reader is prepared to like the main character before ever opening the novel. That’s why they picked up the novel. You have a reader’s attention and good will at the outset on that point. The only way a reader will not like a character, and therefore a book, is if you blow creating a character to root for. I cannot tell you how many novels I’ve put down because I did not care about the heroine/hero. I want to like them, and for them to take me away from my own world.
- In the first paragraph of A Caribbean Mystery, Christie gives us an old military man–Major Palgrave–reminiscing. We hear his British accent and age in the dialogue. The second paragraph, one sentence: Old Miss Marple inclined her head. That’s it. She didn’t turn her head, she didn’t sigh, she didn’t interrupt or correct. We see her listening to an old man. That is the loving the dog with respect. Who doesn’t love to be listened to? Who doesn’t admire a listener.
- In the following paragraph, Christie elaborates on this theme, on what Miss Marple is offering the old man, and how she is cleverly able to be respectful and kind, while really not listening at all. Oh, we love the cleverness. We’ve all done this, from young to old. In these paragraphs we learn Miss Marple has experience, is wise and kind and very human. We admire her.
- Further down the second page and onto the third, we are looking through Miss Marple’s thoughts at her life, at who she is, a spinster, obviously, with a doting nephew, who always wants to improve her. He loves her, so we’re prone to love her, and she loves him, and we love her for loving him. Here’s a key: if you want a character to be lovable, have someone else in the story love them. Again, I have to say almost anyone of any generation can relate to this.
- Then for me there is a sentence that leaps out: “Modern novels. So difficult–all about such unpleasant people, doing such very odd things and not, apparently, even enjoying them.” Funny! Enlivening, revealing. I connect. I feel the exact same way about modern novels, here nearly fifty years after the book was first published.
Agatha Christie was a master at both character and plot. I’m continuing on with the book with an eye to character and invite you to join Mary Ann and I, and share your observations, if you’re so inclined. I’ll try to post on this topic again next week.
Keep writing, about anything and everything. That’s how you find out who you are.