What makes us bond with a character?
Rosie Meyers is my favorite heroine in a novel even though we have zip in common. She’s Jewish, wealthy, a Long Islander, an English teacher. I’m none of the above. The heroine of AFTER ALL THESE YEARS is one of author Susan Isaacs’ delightful creations. Rosie is a plucky, curious forty-something, who tells her first-person tale with razor-sharp wit and uses keen observation to paint devastatingly funny pictures of the characters she bumps into throughout the novel.
Consider Rosie’s description of her (cheating and soon-to-be-found murdered) husband: “His jaw wasn’t so much chiseled from granite anymore as sculpted from mashed potatoes. His hairline and his gums were receding at about the same rate. And when his shirt was off, he’d eye his chest hair in disbelief, as if some practical joker had plunked a gray toupee between his pectorals.”
Why do I find Rosie as enjoyable today as when Isaacs’ book was first published in 1993? The answer’s easy: humor. The heroine’s willing to poke fun at her own foibles (along with everyone else’s) and her humor is organic. It blossoms from her (and I suspect Isaacs’) wry view of the world. I love that Isaac treats the reader to the full panoply of Rosie’s chaotic internal thought processes when she’s confronted with the unexpected—like a corpse on her kitchen floor—or pondering a course of action.
She isn’t a Jack Reacher-style character, who spots a butcher knife protruding from a chest and instantly analyzes the situation and plans a strategic response. (Don’t get me wrong, I like Jack Reacher, but he fits in a totally different character category.) Rosie is human. And that’s why I empathize and identify with her.
That’s also why I tried to give my heroine in DEAR KILLER, Marley Clark, her fair share of flaws and doubts to balance the talents (like speaking Polish and mastering Tae Bo) that many of us lack. I want people to identify with Marley, to like her even when she screws up. Marley also laughs at herself and, while she’s amused by some of her friends’ eccentricities, she accepts them.
I actually find it harder to create a credible villain than a hero or heroine. It’s tempting to make your villains totally evil—pick characteristics you despise, roll them in a tidy ball, and voila a villain’s born. The result is about as believable as the guy with a greasy moustache and a whip in silent films. So I try to find reasons my bad guys (and gals) act as they do. And I attempt to give most of them redeeming traits—perhaps a sense of honor or love for a child. (Even Hannibal Lecter had a fondness for Clarice Starling in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.)
Of the suggestions I’ve heard about writing villains, one of the best is this: remember your villain is the hero of his own story. He thinks he’s right, that he should prevail.
Who is your favorite heroine/hero and why?
What villain has stayed with you long after you read a book?