I decided to jump into this discussion on character and though there are many reasons why I love or hate a character, I must start at the beginning. And at the beginning I fell in love with someone out of the pages of a book.
I was eleven or thereabouts. I might have been eight. After a while all those ages run together. At any rate, real love and any interest in men was a long time in the future. But I got my hands on Dumas The Three Musketeers. For those who haven’t read let me explain that after some preamble with the youthful D’Artagnan and some barbed tongue-in-cheek comments, we move on to a scene in the Captain’s office, where he’s upbraiding two of the Musketeers – Porthos and Aramis – because he’s heard that the third of the inseparables, Athos, was wounded. Of course his wound was an humiliation for the musketeers, so he’s telling the two musketeers he called in that perhaps he should go and command a nunnery instead. Only at that moment Athos comes in. It is clear he is wounded and only staying on his feet by a powerful effort of will. He came to save his comrades from being yelled at and he refuses to show his weakness, but he is in fact so wounded that he collapses when the captain squeezes his hands.
At that moment I fell in love. Head over heels. As an adult and a writer, I think I can tell you why – it was his sacrifice for his fellows, his iron will in dragging himself in, his refusal to give and inch and – ultimately – the undeniable physical wound that causes him to lose consciounsness. This created a brew of courage, honor and the inevitable compassion for someone who is hurt that couldn’t help but capture me.
Athos is not a very admirable character. He drinks. He’s a mysogenist, and he killed his wife – perhaps with the best of reasons, at least for his time. But the introduction captured me so much that I stayed with him until the end of the series and then as some of you know went on to write mysteries with the musketeers – really for the sake of spending time with Athos! And might now be doing another (fantasy) project with them soon.
Such the power of making a character larger than life at the outset.
There are many characters in novels that I hate. Usually if I hate the character I hate the novel and vice-versa. And I’m not going to waste my time describing them. Instead I’m going to jump to an iconic novel of a legend of the field, a novel that by rights I should hate with a passion, because all its techniques and its “point” are the sort of thing that rubs me wrong. (This is not to say it’s bad. Just that it’s almost custom made to push my buttons the wrong way.) However, that novel remains on my shelves because of its main character. I’m talking about The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula LeGuinn. Therem Hart Rem Ir Estraven (not sure I got the first name properly spelled, and I’m too lazy to go to the shelf tonight) comes on stage through the eyes of the Earth character who despises him and views him as a conniving, venal sort of person. (The characters, for those who haven’t read the novel, are hermaphrodites, so the proper wording is hard.) Then we jump to Therem’s mind and we find he is actually an admirable person in an impossible situation, trying to live up to his commitments and hanging off the end of his rope. The author then proceeds to both put him through hell and make him come through it with honor and dignity. And then she kills him.
I’m not sure the last one is needed, but its emotional punch is very powerful and keeps you going back to see how she did it.
The only thing I have against what she did with that character is that it ruined two of my early – unpublished – novels in which I tried very hard to replicate that effect but just managed to make people take such a dislike to my character that they never got over it.
And those are characters that make me fall in love with them. There are others – Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Demerel in Venetia (which, in answer to the obligatory Heyer question is, in fact, my favorite Heyer.) And it occurs to me both these characters are in reality very flawed and come across even more flawed than they are, but have an inner sense of honor that might not fit that of society but which is, in fact, noble and larger than life.
In the comments (to Dave?) Doc John mentioned that he was told one of his characters was too powerful. That is a big issue. I had to figure out how to handle this with Athena in DarkShip Thieves. For good and sufficient reasons, integral to the plot, Athena IS better than most people. I balanced this out by giving her good instincts but – due to her upbringing – the moral sense and self-image of a catatonic gerbil. What this means is that even though she’s smart, she can be completely blinded by her own perceptions and apply her mind/strength in EXACTLY the wrong way. In effect, in many ways, she’s her own worst enemy.
I think the point is that if your character IS larger than life in good, you must balance it with larger than life in ill also.
I’ve – as usual – written five times as much as anyone else. So let me bow out for now. I shall return eventually with my amazing, piercing, and possibly excess-coffee induced insights in how to create truly loathsome wretches. Maybe...