Liking Your Characters

I wrote this post for my UK publisher, MacLehose Press. (Their photo of a ball and chain was taken in the British Library, not as you might think in Ottawa.)

My natural inclination is to look for the flaws and weaknesses in people. Who knows why? The way I was raised, my years as a journalist, my interest in figuring people out. But you need more than a critical eye to be a novelist. That is, if you want a novel where characters reveal themselves over time.

The trick, I think, is to let the characters out from under the authorial thumb, to give them room. They respond to that, just as your friends and family respond when you stop being so hard on them.

Something happens to me, too, when I see a character from different angles and in different lights. More of my imagination, more of my sympathy is aroused, and I become less narrow.

In Alone in the Classroom I have a villain, Parley Burns, the disturbed headmaster. The notion that a headmaster might be insane engages every fibre of my being. My father was a school principal and I was terrified of him (not that he was insane). There is the mystery of what makes such a person tick. There is the greater mystery – this fascinates me even more – that hateful people are loved.

To reach any understanding of why, you need to have characters who bring out the best and the worst in each other. It’s like watching the weather, the way a person changes depending on whom he’s with.

Some weeks ago I watched on YouTube a panel of academics, critics, playwrights talking about Pauline Kael, the great movie critic whose work I read endlessly in my forties. I loved her old reviews, especially the ones a paragraph long; she was the nerviest, most succinct of writers. The playwright on the panel knew her personally and had sent her one of his plays to critique. To his surprise, she told him he didn’t like his characters enough. “You have to make them brilliant – even the dumb ones – smarter than you are. That’s what it’s about.”

I’ve been turning this over in my mind ever since. How can a character be smarter than the author? Well, it happens all the time. You invent a character, but not from nothing. You steal things. You overhear things and use them. You read things and make use of them. You work with ingredients you pick up here and there, and you open yourself to the character’s possibilities.

As you write you discover thoughts you didn’t know you had, and images arrive out of nowhere. It doesn’t happen unless you’re writing. You become, while you’re writing, smarter than you are. Then when you’re blocked, you are stupider than you are.

Pauline Kael wanted to fall in love when she watched a movie, to be seduced, transported, surprised, caught up. She wanted to rise to meet the characters. I think that’s what she meant when she said the playwright didn’t like his characters enough. Not that the characters have to be likable, not at all, but that the writer didn’t let them expand and blossom and surprise themselves, and in the process surprise her.

What I aim for is to be unsparing without being dismissive, tender without losing my edge. It’s the hardheaded writers I’m drawn to, hardheaded writers who double back on expectations. They’re the ones I can’t get enough of, Pauline Kael being a prime example.

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