Characters, Writing

Marian Keyes to Success

Marian Keyes, the popular and immensely talented Irish writer, has a gift.  Well, she has many but the one that fascinates me the most and makes her novels, which have a way of tackling some tough subjects with a wicked sense of humor, is her talent for characterization.   I’ve read five of her novels now and all of her work is populated by very human, flawed characters that it is sometimes difficult to like.  Yet, somehow, she develops them in a way that makes them impossible not to root for.  Her Walsh Family series focuses on a family with five pretty much grown daughters, but each novel in the series focuses on one of the daughters.  In The Brightest Star in the Sky, Keyes tackles not one or even two major characters but 7.  Seven major, fully fleshed out characters which she develops thoroughly and gradually.  In less capable hands, this would become tedious because getting to know all of the characters takes up a good portion of the novel.  Most of the action that brings the cast together doesn’t happen until the final 100 pages.

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The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes (isn’t that a beautiful cover?)

Keyes develops her characters through glimpses into their history, dialogue, and interactions with the other characters.  And it is magical.  When I began The Brightest Star in the Sky, I was confused and worried that I was about to encounter my first disappointment at the hands of Marian Keyes.  It is narrated by an unknown entity – a spirit of some sort – which drifts from apartment to apartment of 66 Star Street, Dublin.  And it’s just strange.  But before long, I forgot about the unusual narrator and became absorbed in the lives of the residents and the people in their lives.  And what a diverse group it is:

Katie – A responsible woman who is still unmarried as she turns forty, has a love of shoes, stationery shops, and drugstores.

Conall – Katie’s workaholic boyfriend whose job is to streamline companies after a takeover.

Lydia – A brash twenty-something cab driver who is seen as rude and hard but is secretly dealing with personal issues no one in their twenties should have to deal with.

Jemima – A wise older woman with a beloved dog, Grudge, and a beloved foster son, the voice of reason in the group but with a tragic secret.

Fionn – Jemima’s man-child of a foster son, moves to Dublin to star in a gardening show and wreaks havoc along the way.

Matt and Maeve – A young married couple that, on the surface, seems like a sweet, innocent couple but they are harboring a painful secret.

They aren’t always likable – then again, who is?  In fact, there are a couple that I initially did not like at all and at least one that I like at first but ended up not really rooting for.  But there are, as we know, two sides to every story.  Once I got to know those characters more deeply, I discovered redeeming qualities and saw how the complexities of their lives colored their actions and behavior.

Creating complete and complex characters is a gift I, and I’m sure all writers, wish to possess.  It is important for holding the reader’s interest in the story and also for making an emotional impact like the one I experienced when the truth behind the strain in Maeve and Matt’s marriage came out.  If I hadn’t grown to care about them I wouldn’t have been quite as affected by Maeve’s experience as I was (though it is horrific no matter who it happens to).  If I hadn’t gotten to see what good people they truly are, I wouldn’t have been so infuriated by their treatment by the justice system and the reaction of their so-called friends.  How, I ask, couldn’t anyone who truly knew Maeve think she was lying?

Characters, Reader's Rights

Paying a Visit to an Old Friend

I know a lot of readers enjoy reading the books they love over and over again.  But, while I have shelves of books I cannot bear to part with, intending to re-read them someday, there are too many books I have yet to discover to spend time re-reading all of those favorites.  Sometimes, though, I give into that urge to reconnect with an old friend.  After reading The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, which, while good and thought-provoking, was not the book I wanted to be reading at the time.  I needed a laugh and a comfortable story.  I picked up Ramona the Pest my favorite of Beverly Cleary’s books about Ramona Quimby and quite possibly my favorite book for most of my childhood.

My original copy of Ramona the Pest :)
My original copy of Ramona the Pest 🙂

As soon as I began reading, I was back in my childhood bedroom, laughing at Ramona’s antics and recalling how I had identified with Ramona, the baby of her family and not really a pest at all, and how I had wanted to be as bold as her.  I found myself picturing the scenes as they’d been illustrated in the edition I first read nearly 30 years ago rather than the updated illustrations of my current copy.  It was like taking a time machine back to my childhood.  And I probably laughed even more now than I did the first few times I read it thanks to my now-adult perspective of Ramona’s adventures.

Re-reading, even more than first readings is about how a book makes you feel.  Ramona the Pest put a smile on my face when I needed one and brought to mind the carefree days of childhood when I could spend an entire Saturday in my room reading my favorite book.  What books do you turn to when you need to visit and old friend?

Characters

Innocent Wisdom

I have observed that using a child or innocent character as the narrator of a story or book with adult themes can be most powerful.  Just think of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, young Frank McCourt in Angela’s Ashes, or seven year old Luke Chandler, narrator of John Grisham’s novel A Painted House, which may not be the classics the other two have become but made an impression on me in large part because of Luke’s narration.  In Scout’s case, intelligent but naïve about the evils of the world, she brings a no-nonsense take on the events and people at the center of the story.  The right thing to do seems so obvious when she points it out.  Without the humor young Frank brings to his tale of growing up in Ireland, Angela’s Ashes has the potential to be one of the most agonizingly depressing books ever written but because of the young boy’s outlook and ability to see the humor in his tragic world, I often found myself laughing through my tears.  In A Painted House, the narrator’s youth makes him an unreliable narrator because he cannot understand all that he sees and hears.  His unreliability increases the suspense of the novel because the reader sees the events through Luke’s young eyes.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I just finished reading Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and the narrator, Cassandra is another example of the power and wisdom of a young or innocent narrator.  Though the novel only encompasses six months in Cassandra’s young life, she loses that innocence and it shows in her narration.  In the first section, despite the hardships in her life, Cassandra’s writing is filled with wise and wonderful observations stated with a simplicity that can only come from innocent observers.  I Capture the Castle is full of memorable quotes, such as:

“I have noticed that when things happen in one’s imaginings, they never happen in one’s life.”

Or

“I have noticed that rooms which are extra clean feel extra cold.”

Or

“I shouldn’t think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea.”

But as the story moves forward and Cassandra begins to see the way the world really works and the true natures of the people she loves, her observations lose their humor and simplicity.  They also become a little more self-centered as she grows more concerned with her own aching heart than her family and her loved ones or describing the world in which she lives.  I guess we’re all like that.  As children, we are focused on our family, then our friends, and on learning all we can about our world but when we reach adolescence, our focus is definitely on our own drama (real or imagined).  When Cassandra does this, she admits that she loses her keen sense of observation.  At her lowest, she fails to take in the city as she walks through the streets of London after leaving her sister.  Something she would have relished only a month or two earlier.

Good books always seem to teach us something about ourselves regardless of the point of view.  Maybe it is just that young or innocent narrators, like the children in our lives, are better at pointing out truths in the simplest terms than adults are.

Characters

Fictional Friends (and Boyfriends)

What makes an unforgettable character?  A hero you want to root for?  A villain you love to hate?  If I knew those answers, I’d probably be a better writer than I am.  All I know is that there are some characters that have, for one reason or another, stayed with me since I met them.  Some are like friends I visit often for some comfort and a good laugh, some just seem like they’d be fun to hang out with, some become book boyfriendsJ, and some are so wonderfully bad that I love to hate them.  Now that I’ve added Soulless’s Alexia Tarabotti to my list of favorite characters – yes, I have a list, doesn’t everyone? – I thought I would introduce you to a few of my other favorites:

  • Sherlock Holmes – No, I’m not on some bandwagon though I am obsessed with BBC’s “Sherlock”. I’ve loved the character of Sherlock Holmes since reading “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” and “The Speckled Band” in middle school (probably even longer thanks to The Great Mouse Detective, but discussion of that would be in another blog altogether).
    I couldn't resist! Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes complete with death frisbee.
    I couldn’t resist! Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes complete with death frisbee.

    Yes, he’s brilliant and solves impossible cases but what I like most about Sherlock is his snark.  In the books, he is excellent at insulting people without them realizing it.  And, most of the time, he only insults the characters that deserve it.  He’s actually pretty nice (by his standards) to the good people in the stories.  He just has an awesome bulls**t detector.

  • Augustus McCraeLonesome Dove could be unbearably heavy and dreary without someone to lighten the mood (just read Streets of Laredo and tell me it’s not a bit depressing). But Gus isn’t just a funny guy who likes to enjoy his life.  His quips and anecdotes are often full of wisdom and he really is a great leader of men.  Unfortunately, he’s also stubborn as hell in the end.  I’m still mad at him.

    Robert Duvall as Gus in the mini-series version of Lonesome Dove was perfection.
    Robert Duvall as Gus in the mini-series version of Lonesome Dove was perfection.
  • Ramona Quimby – In my younger days, I considered the star of Beverly Cleary’s delightful series one of my best friends. Like me, she is a little sister but she has the spunk I wish I had and the courage to get into all the trouble I wish I had been brave enough to get into.
    Ramona the Pest (Ramona #2) by Beverly Cleary
    Ramona the Pest (Ramona #2) by Beverly Cleary

    My favorite Ramona book is Ramona the Pest when she’s in kindergarten.  She chases a boy, pulls a classmate’s bouncy curls, draws her Qs into little cats, and gets into all sorts of scrapes at school and home.  As a shy quiet child, I wanted to be Ramona.

  • Atticus Finch – I hope it isn’t a crime these days to say Atticus Finch is one my favorite characters. I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman yet, so as far as I’m concerned, To Kill a Mockingbird is the only source for the character of Atticus or any of the Finches.  He is probably the noblest character in American literature, living by and standing by his values even when it is difficult and potentially dangerous.  Most importantly, though, he is the kind of father I would want for my children.

    Another reason to love Atticus Finch. It gives me an excuse to post a picture of Gregory Peck looking all noble.
    Another reason to love Atticus Finch. It gives me an excuse to post a picture of Gregory Peck looking all noble.
  • Sydney Carton – The main protagonist of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities may seem like the polar opposite of Atticus Finch what with his drinking, laziness, and gloomy view of the world but he is every bit as noble. He finally finds a cause or purpose, whatever you want to call it, and then sacrifices himself (literally!) for it.  He dies so that the woman he loves can be happy with the man she loves.  And right before he loses his head, he says one of the most beautiful lines in all of literature:  “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
    Ronald Coleman as Sydney Carton in the 1935 film adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities.
    Ronald Coleman as Sydney Carton in the 1935 film adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities.

    I would’ve loved you, Sydney!

  • Elizabeth Bennett – If I can’t actually be Pride and Prejudice’s enviable heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, I would love to just hang out with her (and Jane, and Charlotte). Elizabeth is feisty, opinionated, intelligent, and has a wicked sense of humor.  And she got the dreamy Mr. Darcy just by being her feisty, opinionated, intelligent self.  And by learning to see beyond certain prejudices of course.

    Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett from the 1995 BBC mini-series
    Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett from the 1995 BBC mini-series

The mention of Mr. Darcy brings me to the subject of book boyfriends.  Mr. Darcy is definitely on that list as are a few other Austen heroes.  Mr. Tilney from Northanger Abbey runs a close second to Mr. Darcy thanks to his delightful sense of humor and Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth is a favorite because of the incredibly romantic declaration of his love for Anne (swoon!).  There are some fantastic fictional men not penned by Miss Austen.  If you’re looking for a good man, try Levi from Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Colin Byrne from Ain’t She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (he has kind of a Sherlock Holmes meets Mr. Darcy thing going on), Hugh of Harrowfield (also known as Red) from Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier, Matthew Clairmont from Deborah Harkness’s All Souls trilogy (or Gallowglass if you prefer your vampires a little rougher around the edges, or everyone’s current favorite Scotsman, Jamie Fraser from the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon.  There have been so many more literary men in my life; these are just a few of my favorites.

You'd didn't think I'd miss the opportunity to post a picture of Colin Firth did you?
You’d didn’t think I’d miss the opportunity to post a picture of Colin Firth, did you?

There are so many unforgettable characters out there, whether they are noble heroes, wicked villains, or scene-stealing secondary characters, that I can’t possibly go into detail about them all.  Here are a few of my Honorable Mentions:

As you’ve probably guessed, I could go on and on but for now, I’ve gone on and on long enough.  These are just a few of the memorable characters I’ve encountered in my lifetime of reading.  Who are your favorite characters?

Characters, Romance

Strong Women and the Supernaturals Who Love Them

Soulless by Gail Carriger
Soulless by Gail Carriger

Alexia Tarabotti, the heroine of Soulless, the first book of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, is the kind of strong, intelligent fearless woman we all wish we could be but she lives in a time when those traits aren’t valued in a woman.  Does she change who she is to fit in?  No.  But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t act like a proper Victorian lady of her standing as much as possible.  She just doesn’t try to hide the fact that she is intelligent and strong.  Her strength, though, doesn’t mean that she isn’t hurt by the things her family and society say.  After years of being told that because of her dark Italian coloring, her Italian features, and her fiery Italian temperament she is unmarriageable, doomed to remain a spinster, Alexia isn’t able to believe it when a man finds her attractive and is drawn to her dominant personality.  I don’t know about you, but this makes me sad and a bit angry because I feel like most women allow the way they see themselves to be dictated by others.  I know I’m guilty of that.  Anyway, because the man in question happens to be a werewolf, Alexia attributes his desire for her to his animal side and the approach of the full moon.  She simply cannot be convinced that anyone, especially the powerful, attractive Lord Maccon, could love her for who she is.

And what is it about these supernatural men we find so irresistible?  In Soulless the romantic hero happens to be a particularly large, alpha male, Scottish werewolf (that’s just a lot of sexy put together!) but I’ve read novels with cool, intellectual vampires, or brutish, bad boy demons, or arrogant, aloof wizards and they’ve all been wonderfully sexy.  But are they any sexier than the athletes, firefighters, accountants, and English teachers that have been the romantic heroes in non-fantasy romances I’ve read?  Not really.  So it isn’t about profession or species; it’s about their characters.  A good hero must be flawed.  Such as being a blood-sucking immortal or an over-protective guy who turns into a wolf once a month.  And they must love the flawed heroine.  In the case of Conall Maccon, Soulless’s sexy lycanthrope, the fact that he is attracted to the strong-willed, outspoken, intelligent Alexia only makes him sexier.  Loving a woman because of the things she sees as her faults is always a plus.  Right?