Sympathy With The Devil

Zoë Sharp

Last night I went to the prize-giving event for the Lancashire Libraries short story competition at County Hall in Preston. A very enjoyable event, with a worthy winner in Jo Powell, and commended writers, Kathryn Halton and Neil Martin. Congratulations to all those who took part – there were some wonderful pieces of writing.

To kick off the evening, myself and fellow judges Neil White and Nick Oldham talked for a little while about writing in general. The audience was made up largely of entrants to the contest, who patiently listened to the three of us ramble on before the winner was announced, and they also had the opportunity to ask questions about writing in general.

The subject of those questions was very interesting, because the thing that people most wanted to know seemed to be about developing good characters. And I must admit, that when I first started trying to write, it was the characters that I found most difficult. Creating rounded people comes only with time and practice, I think.

I remember getting hold of a book about the different characteristics of the various signs of the zodiac, which was very useful for working out some traits that dovetailed together. I’ve read books on body language and mental illness, looking for those genuine tics and features that make characters come to life on the page.

But do I write out detailed character biographies before I start, as one audience member asked?

Erm, no, I don’t.

I’ve tried it, but I find myself inventing stuff just for the sake of it, and then the danger is that you try too hard to shoehorn that information into the story when it just doesn’t fit.

The truth is, before I meet a character, in setting, I don’t know them all that well. I have an idea of why they’re there and what drives them, but until they metaphorically shake my hand and look me in the eye, I don’t really know them.

I’ve never liked stories that dump all of a character’s backstory in your lap within a page. Equally, I don’t like people who tell me their life history the first time I meet them. Some people have that kind of abounding self-confidence, though, that makes them want to boast about their achievements to comparative strangers. The kind who tell you within ten minutes of meeting what their house is worth, or how much they paid for their car. Usually, I have to say, they’re self-made.

It’s nice of them to take the blame.

Think of people you’ve met, who might have seemed quite charming when they were first introduced, but gradually you realise that you can’t stand them. They don’t have to come out with an outrageous personal statement, like they think your litter of dalmation puppies would make a wonderful fur coat, but after a while it dawns on you that they’re not quite as charming as you thought they were.

And nowhere near as charming as they think they are, either.

Is it the way they rattle on about themselves for just that bit too long, without asking anything about you in return? Do their eyes stray past you while you talk, and linger on the dangerously young girl who’s just walked by? Do they manoeuvre you out of a conversation with your boss or colleague, or steer things round to how great they are or what they’re working on instead?

Or do you suddenly notice that their smile doesn’t quite reach all the way up to their eyes?

 Things like this used to really annoy me. Now I take notes.

Of course, certain traits simply crop up in the writing. Often, I don’t know exactly where they come from. They just suddenly arrive.

I’m writing a short story at the moment. I have a character who’s an old-school East End gangster, married but with a younger mistress towards whom he is slightly cold. And unexpectedly, halfway through the story, I found out that the reason for this is because his wife suffered early-onset dementia and is in a nursing home, that obviously he is enormously fond of her but she doesn’t know him any more. That changes things about him. It changes them a lot. But I didn’t know that before I started writing, and to be honest I don’t think I would have thought of it up front.

So, my solution now is that I think I’ll do character biographies after I’ve finished the first draft of a book, so I can see if any characters seem a bit thin or a bit clichéd, in which case I can make another pass and see if I can get them to talk to me a little more about who they are and why they behave the way they do.

Another character question that came up was about making characters sympathetic, and what are the traits you should remove in order to make them more so.

This is a very difficult question, because some of the finest characters in fiction have traits you wouldn’t expect to appeal to the reader. Who would have thought that Dexter Morgan, the psychopathic serial-killing hero of Jeff Lindsay’s series, would be such a hit?

Or Thomas Harris’s ‘gentleman, genius, cannibal’ Dr Hannibal Lecter?

And what about the mysterious Jackal of Frederick Forsyth’s classic thriller, THE DAY OF THE JACKAL? The man is a ruthless assassin, who picks up first a lonely woman, sleeps with her and murders her, and then preys on a gay man in order to have a place of safety to stay before the attempted hit on De Gaulle. He had few redeeming features, but by the end of the book you find yourself almost willing him to succeed. Is it his very ruthlessness that makes him so fascinating?

It comes back to the fact that you don’t have to like a character to be thoroughly engaged by them. Ken Bruen’s corrupt coppers, Roberts and Brant, should be the kind of policemen playing the villains, not the heroes, but you root for them all the way through.

The James Bond of Ian Fleming’s books was a racist, misogynist womaniser. Doesn’t seem to have done him any harm.

So, what turns an on-the-face-of-it unsympathetic character into a human train wreck that we just can’t tear our eyes away from? Has to be down to the skill of the writer, for sure.

I’d love to hear your examples, and what it is about them that should be unappealing, but somehow just works. Is it down to humour? Do we find ourselves instinctively warming to a character who possesses a biting wit, even if they are the twisted personification of evil? Or is it the evil itself that we secretly find so compelling?

How do you go about constructing a character? 

This week’s Word of the Week is cacoëthes which apparently means mania or passion or even disease. It’s from Greek kakoethes, which combines kakos, bad with ethos, habit.  And from this comes cacoëthes scribendi, a compulsion to write, the writer’s itch, an uncontrollable desire to write, a mania for authorship. Roman satirical poet Juvenal wrote: “Tenet insanabile multos scribendi cacoethes”  or “The incurable itch for scribbling affects many.”

And finally, let us not forget that today is Remembrance Day, Armistice Day and Veterans’ Day.

27 thoughts on “Sympathy With The Devil

  1. Spencer Seidel

    I agree with you about character descriptions. When I first started writing novels, everyone said, "Thou shalt create long-winded character bio sheets." Like you, I found myself inventing things for the sake of it. Then, when I wrote the novel, everything would change as I got to know the character. Now, I just start out with a general idea and meet and learn about my characters as I go.

    Ken Follett used to be fond of main characters who blurred the line between protagonist and antagonist. The Man from St. Petersburg and Eye of the Needle are two examples. I think he used that technique effectively, but I've always wondered if he intended to do it.

  2. Lisa

    This is a terrific and freeing post! I have also fallen into the trap of creating character bios, because I felt like that was the correct way to create a character. However, it seems to stunt my creativity when I do this. I will henceforth be employing your model.

    And I agree with you about the best characters not always being sympathetic ones. The Jackal and James Bond are both characters I love, even though they are enormously flawed. I love the Jackal for how cold and calculating he is. It's intriguing. James Bond is out saving the world, but his flaws are what makes him stand out from the vast crowd of fictional super spies.

  3. J.D. Rhoades

    I, too, save character bios till after the first draft, because they tend to change so much in the writing. For instance, Marie Jones, the love interest in the Jack Keller books, started as a walk-on, and eventually turned into a major character.

    Characters that should be unappealing, but aren't? The ones that come to mind immediately are Travis McGee and Jack Reacher. McGee can be a bit full of himself and his attitude towards women is more than a little patronizing. Reacher's just weird, when you think about it. But I love both characters.

  4. Eika

    The surprises that come up when writing are fun. In one of the first things I wrote, I wound up just giving a character the middle name Archibald- a female character. Every time she has to use the middle name, she glares people down if they ask.

    Right now, I've given a character an unrefusable task: freeing slaves. Except she thinks the lot of them are lazy, unappreciative idiots who don't deserve freedom. She has a lot of positive traits, but if I'd made a profile beforehand, I'd be trying to shoehorn her into enthusiasm for the task. After all, unless you start with a character being evil or unlikable as a matter of course, why would you put major things into their character on purpose? (Shush. I used to think that. I've learned.)

  5. Louise Ure

    I know so little about my characters at the beginning that I don't even have names for them. I use city names as stand-ins until the character reveals enough of himself to know what he should be called. If you read any of my early drafts, you'd see an awful lot of Sedonas, Lancasters, Dallases and Witchitas there.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lisa

    I'm delighted that this has struck a chord with you. I don't think there IS a correct way to do this job, it's just whatever works for you.

    I tried in my examples to pick out characters that were as much literary-based as movie-based, although the movie version of James Bond has always been portrayed as far more lighthearted than in the novels (possibly with the exception of the Daniel Craig incarnation, who is a bit more tortured, I think).

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    I thought about Travis McGee, but he has plenty of redeeming features and the ones in that series I've read (not all of them – yet) seem very much to have the feel of the time about them. Attitudes towards women in the 1960s WERE more than a little patronising, so I guess the character just reflects that.

    Reacher is definitely a flawed character, defined by his rootlessness and his sense of justice. But who would have thought a homeless drifter would have proved such a great modern-day hero?

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Eika

    Names with hidden meanings are always interesting – just look at the mystery that surrounded Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse for years before it was revealed his first name was Endeavour.

    When I first introduced the character of Sean in book two, RIOT ACT, I also mentioned his sister and younger brother, called Ursula and Roger. I didn't reveal until THIRD STRIKE (book seven) that Sean's mother had been a big James Bond fan, and had named her children after Sean Connery, Ursula Andress and Roger Moore. As Sean comments, "We even had a dog called No. It was a bugger trying to teach it anything."

    As soon as you mentioned you character thought the slaves were undeserving, I immediately wondered how she came to this opinion, and what in her background has shaped this view…

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    Picking city names sounds like a much better idea than just plumping for any old name and changing it later, because the characters have a habit of growing into their names, however inappropriate.

    Sadly, we don't have such evocative place names over here. I can see me struggling to take a book I'm writing seriously if it's peopled by characters called Cleethorpes, Skelmersdale, Runcorn and Slough!

  10. Debbie

    Love, just love James Bond. You watch him and think no, seriously…and he's going to get away with that? And he does, and you love him for it, even cheer him on!

    I began writing and modeled some character traits after Hugh Grant in Sense and Sensability in order to get the character moving. One day, I went to describe something and found my character already doing it. It was no longer just a character…he, whoever that is, had walked into place. I'm considering counselling for this affliction but I find it kind of fun!

    All time favourite character: Monsieur Paul Emanuel (Villette, Brontë). You all but hate him nearly all the way through the book…one of those, 'what the hell is this guys problem?' kind of characters. And then you find out…and then you love him.

  11. Alafair Burke

    I also have to get to know a character as a I write.

    As for good/bad characters? I love Dexter Morgan even though he's a sociopath.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Debbie

    Confession time – I've never read VILLETTE. But I wonder if I'd stick with a character who appeared to be unsympathetic almost right to the end of a book. I'll have to check that one out.

    And what's wrong with using Hugh Grant as your muse?

  13. Gar Haywood

    A writer I greatly respect once showed me an example of the files of developmental material he liked to create before writing a single word of a new book. It was three inches thick. Every character had a history going back to birth. He was a fine writer, so this method obviously worked great for him.

    Me? I like to start with a name and an occupation, and some general sense of physical appearance. More than that I don't need. All the empty spaces fill themselves as I go, and I often find myself thrilled by the things I discover about my characters on the fly.

    You're right on about the Too Much Information factor, Zoe. When you spend weeks, maybe even months compiling a complete dossier on every character in a book, how can you not be tempted to cram all those details into it, whether they fit organically or not?

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Gar

    Nice way of putting it. I like to know roughly what age my characters are, too, as that has a lot to do with their outlook, I think.

    Whenever I've included characters who have been bid for in the charity auction at events like Bouchercon, I like to chat to the person at the time, just to get a feel for what kind of character they'd like to be, but then specific bits of information I have to email and ask for later, as I'm writing. What kind of sports car would they choose to drive? Would they play tennis or ride horses? Any preference on favourite drink? Including those aspects can be fun, but I wouldn't want to do it for every character in the book.

    And who has months to work on this stuff before they have to dive into actually writing the next book?

  15. lil Gluckstern

    I think we like heroes who are mysterious, whose lives are nothing like our everyday stuff, even though that can be satisfying. Reacher reminds me of Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name, or the tv hero of past times called Paladin. The mysterious stranger who swoops in to save the day and then moves on. They demand nothing, take nothing, and then leave. We are fascinated by sociopaths because we are, hopefully, nothing like them. How can they be the way they are? That's been the fascination for years, IMHO.

  16. Lorena

    Skink, in Carl Hiaasen's books. The heroine in Liars Anonymous (Louise Ure). A heroine whose name and book title right now are absolutely escaping me from William Bernhart … I think one thing I find compelling is the idea of heroes who shouldn't be heroes. Who have to dig down and somehow even get over themselves in order to do what maybe should have been easy, but they don't make it that way. A little bit crazy, perhaps, and a whole lot of trying to figure out whether the demons are going to beat THEM this time.

    Can't write characters like that worth a flip, but I love reading them 🙂

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lil

    I would agree with you – I like my heroes to be, well, heroic I s'pose. But there are an enormous number of main protags out there who just seem fairly ordinary folk, and yet they have something about them that makes them compelling.

    On the other hand, Larsson's Lisbeth Salander is a very damaged heroine – anti-social, awkward, violent and withdrawn. But she's proved fascinating to millions.

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lorena

    You're so right – Louise's character of Jessie Dancing is a very memorable one!

    And I, too, like some of the conflict to be internal as well as external. The more you put them under pressure, the more you learn about the character – true in life as well as fiction. Anybody can be sweetness and light when things are going well.

  19. JT Ellison

    I've gotten to the point that I do a lot of character development on the fly, which is very fun. I love when someone starts as one person, and like your chap with his dementia ridden wife, evolves into something totally different. One of the joys of writing for me.

    A super post, Z.

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    I'm rather relieved that the general concensus seems to be … make it up as you go along!

    It was wonderful to be able to watch the way your character of James 'Memphis' Highsmythe grew and increased in complexity as he went along.

  21. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine

    You're quite right – I should have thought of Dexter's dad, too. What kind of guy realises his son has the makings of a serial killer and moulds him into a force for 'good'?

  22. Kathryn Halton

    Zoe, I was happily surprised to hear you say that you don't always have a fully formulated character bio before you start writing. I had become bogged down in creating character biographies rather than getting on with the writing, and feel a sense of relief that successful writers don't think it's necessary!
    I enjoyed the prize giving event enormously, and for you to validate what I spend every spare minute of the day doing (which isn't many!) by awarding me a commendation was a fantastic motivation for me! Thanks for giving up your time to write the first line, and judge the competition..

Comments are closed.