Walking on the Wild Side: What Makes a Character Engaging?

On my occasional trawls through the millions of writers’ forums that infest the interwebs, one of the constant discussion threads is: how do you create a character that truly engages the audience?

I’ve read (and answered) the question a thousand times, but today I thought…’Bugger it! I actually have a blog for this kind of thing…why not say what I reckon there and just link to it in the future?’

So here goes…what makes characters engaging?

For me, the answer has to lie in the link between the main character(s) and the plot. My main characters are always born in the same moment the basic story idea crystallises in my head. There is always some quirk or feature of the character’s condition that fits naturally with the premise and incipient plot – the one couldn’t exist without the other, and both evolve from there.

Accordingly, when the reader first perceives what the central drama is (or is likely to be) they must at the same time perceive the main character(s)’s role(s) and therefore look forward with pleasure to the way they anticipate the plot unfolding plus the character’s likely journey.

One of my most frequent criticisms of books and movies is that they seem to promise a great deal, and then don’t deliver. The characters do not have the journey the writer apparently promised – which can be deeply disappointing. I try to make it a cornerstone of my ‘style’ that I promise a lot, and then deliver far more than was promised, mainly through the gradual expansion of the scope of the story; ie, the tale grows in the telling and the conclusion is always bigger and wilder than anything a reader might have guessed at the start. (At least, that is my hope.)

Therefore, presuming the reader is engaged by my premise, they must also be engaged by the character’s part in the unfolding and resolution of that premise. Once they have some kind of emotional or intellectual investment in the resolution, they will like being with the character, even if they don’t particularly like the character. This is the essence of both the hero’s and the anti-hero’s attraction.

So what sort of characters do I tend to create?

I’ve had three novels published (or almost published) since 2010. One main character was an ordinary man with one extraordinary skill which had been thwarted for a range of vicissitudes of life reasons (Mr Cleansheets). Another was a very ordinary man who finds himself by accident in extraordinary circumstances and has the most incredible journey imaginable (THEM). And the one about to be published (next month) is about an extraordinary man who has an extraordinary obsession…which gets him into all sorts of trouble (Straight Jacket).

Morgen Tanjenz (Straight Jacket) is a particularly problematic main character because he gets up to all sorts of antics which some readers will find disturbing. On top of that he’s rich, breathtakingly arrogant, and worst of all…he’s a lawyer. It’s not necessary for the reader to like Morgen, but it is absolutely critical that the reader enjoys being with Morgen as he undertakes his journey.

And this is where the deeper levels of engagement come in. When the reader finds him/herself spending time with a character who is challenging (ie, responding to situations or challenges in ways that the reader would not…or even in ways that the reader finds distasteful, immoral or downright evil) the reader is obliged to review his/her own natural inclinations, especially where there is a plausible reason for the character’s actions within the rules of the world of the book. Might the reader have done the same thing? Given the same circumstances? And even if they wouldn’t, they might get a deeper insight into why some people would.

In the right storytelling hands, readers of a particular alignment can find themselves hoping things they would never hope in real life, on behalf of a character they would absolutely shun, or run screaming from in real life.

Flashman is such a character. The Flashman series by George McDonald Fraser features one of the most engaging characters in the history of literature. Brigadier General Sir Harry Flashman, VC, KCB, KCIE, publicly, is a heroic and celebrated soldier of the Victorian era but, in reality, he is a coward who runs shrieking from one crisis to the next while raping and thieving his way to fame and fortune – and telling his tale in such a smug and condescending fashion, that we can’t help but love him to bits.

This is masterful storytelling. To create such a dreadful character as Flashman and have the reading public clamour for more over thirteen books and five decades is a real tribute to an absolute titan of popular literature.

Another such anti-hero is Renton in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting – a thieving junkie utterly remorseless in his pursuit of money for drugs, but even we white-bread, bourgeois types can identify and sympathise with Renton, due probably to the amusing and complex philosophical narrative which accompanies his earthy adventures and invites the reader to achieve the same intellectual heights despite the appalling depths into which the story must wallow.

So what does this say about modern, bourgeois, well-adjusted readers? Are we somehow programmed to enjoy the Dark Side when the writer is able to press the right buttons? If yes, then this is powerful knowledge in the hands of skilled creators, as the writers of Rake, Breaking Bad and Dexter are obviously aware.

But what about the good characters?

What about the Frodos and Bilbos out there, with clear goals and pure motives?

They’re also engaging, for some, but I am always bored by the uncomplicated good guys. Indeed, when I read The Lord of the Rings I wanted to know more about Sauron and the orcs. And Gollum, of course. I suppose Frodo was tempted by the Ring – towards the end – and that’s when he became briefly interesting.

To get back to my own characters (and I’d never dream of suggesting that this method ought to work for anyone else but me) it’s the clear goals I always like to screw with. And in fact, I’d never thought about this until today…my characters NEVER achieve their original goals. They always achieve something, but not what they hoped for at the beginning of the story. There’s always some sort of ambiguous dalliance with the Dark Side, as the goalposts gradually shift.

Mr Cleansheets was offered a huge amount of money and the opportunity to join a major professional football team – but that would have meant him abandoning the hero’s journey that the reader desperately wanted him to fulfil. Lasseter (in THEM) has numerous opportunities to accept fame and fortune at the expense of his true destiny.

And as for Morgen in Straight Jacket? You’ll have to read that for yourself.

But I promise you’ll find him engaging.

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Review – just_a_girl – Kirsten Krauth

I occasionally complain that no-one writes books any more that require a bit of effort from the reader.

Whatever happened to the dense and difficult works that we all remember from our literary upbringing? Fiction these days seems mostly to fall into two camps – the escapist holiday novel, or the didactic political message novel – and neither leave you in any doubt about what the author really thinks.

just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth falls into neither camp. Her debut novel is a welcome return to subtlety, ambiguity and the idea of literature as art. The best stories are those that bounce along at a decent clip, while at the same time gradually revealing their complexity, and finally leaving you to contemplate the consequences.

Always leave the reader wanting more.

To give an idea of the flavour, it reminded me a little of Morvern Callar, with a few nods to the intense internals of The Shipping News, but no debut novelist will be ashamed of such comparisons.

The story is almost a fabliau – a triangulation of narratives – two first person and one third. The main voice is Layla – Lolita with a webcam. She is 14 and ready, but despite her sometimes graphic disclosures about her developing sexuality, we are aware that she is not telling us everything.

The next voice is Margot – Layla’s mother, whose problems stem from a husband who left when he could no longer ignore the truth of his innate homosexuality. Margot has never quite recovered from the humiliation of being left for another man. She is worried about her daughter, but she is more worried about her own plight and is attempting to find redemption in one of those plastic/commercial churches that infest the West of Sydney.

Third, there is Tadashi – a displaced soul in an ill-fitting culture. The object of his poetic and deeply reverent affection is unable to properly reciprocate and he finds his thoughts increasingly turning to ‘the girl on the train’ – who is, of course, Layla.

The main theme, I would say, is loneliness (or maybe separateness), which is counterpointed by the connected world of the internet. Both Layla and Margot’s chapters read like blog posts or diary entries, and reveal their loneliness (Margot) and separateness (Layla). Tadashi is both lonely and separate. All three characters explore the condition in their own way while circling each other – never quite able to reach out for each other, or for the others who pass in and out of the story to complicate the fabliau and contribute to the revelations at the end.

If I had a criticism, it is that I could believe the sexual precociousness of Layla, but I struggled at times with her articulate insight into the condition and motives of adults:

“The train’s packed at this time with weekenders. North Shore couples retreating to their ye olde worlde cottages. Where they can fuck in the spa and have cups of tea on doilies. The cooler people head for Katoomba. They can buy alpaca wool. Or score some heroin to help the local junkie culture.”

I laughed out loud when I read that, but I sincerely doubt that any 14 year old could achieve the coolly jaded sensibilities requisite for such sophisticated sarcasm.

It is a small criticism, and the book more than makes up for it with page after page of profound, humorous, harrowing and (it must be said) very brave writing. There’s no way a man could get away with writing this style of work (Nabokov’s time has passed) but even a woman has to be tremendously gutsy to write about adolescent sexuality in such disgustingly PC times.

This was an entertaining and beautifully written novel which will have me contemplating for some time. Kirsten Krauth is likely to emerge as an important voice in Australian literature.

Straight Jacket – Once More Into the Breach…

Today is the 9th of August.

Besides being the anniversary of Nagasaki, it is not (for me) an auspicious date. It is simply the date at which I have started to record my ruminations regarding my next project – Straight Jacket (published by High Horse Books, Melbourne). I have decided to do so on the ninth of each month – sort of my own personal reality show in which I report and speculate on the story so far. Will Straight Jacket be a success, or will it get voted off the show by the bookstore audience? Stay tuned.

I have reason to be confident.

My first book, Mr Cleansheets, did reasonably well. Several thousand people read it and many saw fit to contact me to express how much they’d enjoyed it. It got good reviews. So I ought to have plenty of fans keen to read the next book.

On top of that, Straight Jacket is (I believe) an improvement on Mr C and likely to appeal to a much wider audience.

So there you go, by all logic I’ll be a famous author by Christmas.

Logic, of course, has nothing to do with it. If my book is to be successful, it must somehow emerge from the Darwinian Struggle of the bookstore having killed off rivals penned by already famous writers supported by the mighty apparatus of the high-end publishing industry. It’s a Frodo versus Sauron contest and, much as I loathe hobbits, I’m Frodo – without the Ring.

Of course, books by obscure authors really do manage, from time to time, to punch above their weight and become bestsellers.

How?

Most bestsellers are bestsellers simply because of who wrote them. I was fascinated by JK Rowling’s recent experiment when she submitted a book under a different name – possibly even had it rejected somewhere – got it published and it did nothing until someone leaked. And then, of course, it went berserk – a previously ignored book started selling like hotcakes because of the JK Rowling brand.

But for those books that do manage to succeed on their own terms, without the marketing clout of a major publisher or the power of a successful author’s brand, what is the defining characteristic or quality that lifts them out of the pack? How do they capture the zeitgeist, or the mood of the public, and turn their creator into a new titan of the publishing pantheon?

It’s not just quality of writing, because there have been some appallingly bad books become bestsellers. I can think of three Australian authors who have been staggeringly successful despite the fact that they do nothing more than generate mindless pap with just enough violence to prevent their work from being classified as pornography.

So it’s not the writing. Could it be the subject matter? That might have something to do with it, but there are plenty of books covering the same field and they don’t all fare equally well in the bookstore.

So could it be the main character(s)? Could there be some special quirk of the narrator or narrative voice that strikes a chord with readers at a particular point in time? I’ll bet that’s an important part of it, which means I’m running a bit of a risk. The narrator of Straight Jacket is Morgen Tanjenz, and some may find him unpleasant.

Morgen is a life sculptor. He’s very rich, very smart, and breathtakingly arrogant. He has total contempt for most human beings and is on a crusade to ‘combat the small venalities of the bourgeoisie’. This means, in effect, that he secretly pulls strings in the background to land people in the shit if he thinks they deserve it.

He also takes drugs, drives under the influence, associates with criminals and treats women appallingly. (He’s not sexist though – he treats men just as badly.) Worst of all, he’s a lawyer.

And yet, everyone who’s read the book so far loves him to bits.

So could I have found the secret formula?

Might I have created a character who so resonates with readers that they become champions of the book and recommend it to others?

Because in the end, that is the only way a book without major marketing clout or established authorial brand can succeed. Lots of people have to like it and get other people to like it also – sounds simple, but there’s nothing harder in the soul-destroying world of professional publishing.

So go on…if you enjoy Straight Jacket, make sure you let others know about it. Become part of my army of darkness that flies out to tell the world about Morgen and his amusing antics. (You might also imply that Straight Jacket was really written by JK Rowling.)

In any case, I’m getting way ahead of myself. The book isn’t even published yet, so I’ll next report on the 9th of September when Straight Jacket will have been in the shops for a week. I might even have seen some reviews by then.

Fingers crossed.

(A sample of Straight Jacket can be read at http://www.adriandeans.com )