Creating a Character — Part II

Nope. Sorry. Can’t do it.

Although I’ve been telling you that to get published in today’s market you need a character who wants something desperately, I’ve never been able to do it. I spend so much time with my characters during the creation and writing of my novels that I have to like them or at least tolerate them. Passionate characters, like Scarlett O’Hara, who go after their goals with no thought for anyone else, might be interesting to you, but to me they are spoiled brats and intolerable.

Perhaps if I could have overcome this prejudice and followed my own advice, I’d have found a publisher by now. Unfortunately for me, all of my heroes have been reactive rather than proactive, at least in the beginning. Seems like I’m going to be making the same mistake again, but I have to go with what feels right.

I just don’t see Chip, the hero of my work in progress, as a driven fellow. Except for his problem with his mother, he seems to be satisfied with his life. He does have a long-term goal: he would like to buy a ranch or farm and take care of old and unwanted animals from zoos and circuses, but since this goal is negated when the world ends, it can’t be a desire that drives him throughout the book.

Still, there has to be a unifying characteristic that is with him throughout all of his adventures. He is distrustful of women because of his mother (and perhaps because of past relationships). That distrust could be his motivating factor, until at the end he finds a woman he can trust. It would also suit his temperament.

In The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, Linda N. Edelstein, PhD, lists styles of behavior and explains the psychology of each. Reviewing the list, I can see that Chip does not have an adventurer’s personality, nor is he bossy, conventional, creative, a conformist, dependant, eccentric, a fall guy, fearful, flamboyant, hyper, a loner, a man’s man, passive-aggressive, a show-off, a victim.

But he is resilient. According to Edelstein, this means he has the ability to recover from losses and disappointments. He is generally happy and productive. He can face his problems and cope with adversity. He is an effective problem solver. He has high ethical standards and takes responsibility for his own life. He has a sense of humor. He is interested in others as well as himself and maintains a strong support network. In the extreme, his independence can become an inability to depend on others, which goes along with his distrust of women.

Maybe he is not an exciting and passionate character, but he sounds like someone I could live with for the next year while I am writing the novel.

Of course, this isn’t all there is to him. He does have special strengths and weaknesses that cause the plot to thicken at times, but I don’t know yet what they are.

I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Scarlett by any other name would have been sweet.

Scarlett O’Hara was originally called Pansy. If Margaret Mitchell had kept that name, would her epic novel ever have become so popular? I doubt it. A Pansy would be sweet and biddable with rare moments of stubbornness, but she could never be as strong-willed as Scarlett, and she would never have caught and kept the attention of such a worldly man as Rhett.

Unlike women characters, men tend not to have exotic names. They usually have common, clipped names, which work well enough in most cases, but what if Rhett had been called Jack or Clint or even Brad? Millions of women would probably still have fallen in love with him, but they certainly would not have found him so intriguing.

Clothes may make the man and woman, but their names (in fiction, anyway) define them.

Though Scarlett fits the name of the character in Gone With the Wind, it could not be the name of a medieval heroine. In those days, almost all girls were named Mary, with Elizabeth coming in a distant second.

I suppose if Gone With the Wind were written in the 1980s, Scarlett’s name would have been Heather. Odd to think that in another forty years, youth will scorn that name as being old-fashioned, fit only for elderly women, much like Effie is today. (I shudder to think how many babies being born right now are being named Britney, Lindsay, or Paris.)

But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that names matter and should be chosen wisely. A book may not be rejected because of a character’s name, but why take the chance?