Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Power of the Contemptible Character


You know who they are -- the minor characters you love to hate in some of your favorite books. They're not psychotic; they're not even really evil. BUT ... they ARE full of minor failings, which inevitably impact the plot ... envy, false pride, phony values ... hurting themselves, or more often, other people ... sometimes, your hero or heroine. And while you loathe them for that, you can't really hate them -- because secretly, you know how much FUN they are when they show up.

Prime example: Caroline Bingley in PRIDE & PREJUDICE. Here's a woman just DYING to get Mr. Darcy's wedding ring on her finger, and yet, with all her artful ways and sophistication, she doesn't stand a chance.

But she NEVER stops trying ... interrupting him while he's writing a letter, taking the second volume of a book he's been reading and sighing about how wonderful reading is, when she hasn't opened the book yet ... even inviting Elizabeth Bennet to walk around the room with her, so she can attract Darcy's attention.

Every time Miss Bingley appears, I get interested. She brings with her an undeniable energy that lifts up the entire story. What stupid thing is she going to do next? I have to admit to a real fascination with that question.

What can you, the writer, do to lift up the energy of your own novel?

Easy: Create a contemptible character of your own.

Save the big failings -- abusiveness, an addiction to chainsaws, unending greed -- for your main villains. But can you give a smaller character some smaller, easily recognizable character flaws? It would help a lot.

Think of Beatrice in BOLT by Dick Francis. Francis, easily my favorite mystery/suspense writer of all time, draws characters in a few quick, unerring strokes that keep them with you forever. His heroes are truly GOOD and his villains -- well, you don't want to run into them on a dark night. In between are some generally good characters (he seems to have a pretty benign world view for a mystery writer) and a few with serious flaws.

Beatrice is one of them. A nouveau riche widow living in Palm Beach, she is easily manipulated because, my dear, she just can't seem to hang onto a dollar, though she has just a TINY establishment with a VERY small staff, and she's constantly scrambling for another source of income.

Kit, the champion jockey hero, is trying to trap a truly bad guy who's putting pressure on Beatrice's elderly and crippled brother and his wife. So far, they've been able to resist, and as Kit shores them up, he becomes the bad guy's target.

Beatrice is aggrieved when she arrives in London to find Kit ensconced in her favorite guest room in the house. "That's MY room!" she announces several times, but despite her clear view that Kit, a jockey, should be in a room just a cut above servants' quarters, her sister-in-law disagrees and keeps Kit in the beautiful guest room.

Beatrice, annoyed and humiliated, tells the bad guy where Kit will be on a certain night -- thus virtually assuring that he will be attacked. Kit manages to escape, but her sister-in-law is horrified and asks why Beatrice would ever do such a thing.

Beatrice, still aggrieved, says plaintively, "He was in MY ROOM." And to her mind, that was all it should take.

A truly contemptible character -- but every time she appears, the energy level of the book rises perceptibly.

Where can you put a contemptible character of your own?

I'm sure if you look, you can find the perfect place ...

SUSAN SLOATE
Author, FORWARD TO CAMELOT, STEALING FIRE

1 comment:

Linda said...

Susan, I love Dick Francis, too. I actually had the good fortune to meet him years ago, and he autographed one of his books for me. You are so right about the contemptible characters! They are such fun to read and even more fun to write.