Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Best Characters Are Always Stubborn

When I think back on which characters in literature are the most memorable and exciting for me, the one trait I find in common with all of them is that they are stubborn.

What do I mean by stubborn?

Anna Karenina (it seems like forever since I've talked about Tolstoy!), Mahlke from Cat and Mouse, Brod from Everything Is Illuminated, Lena from Light In August, Ann from After Ann--whether it be their beauty, their penis size, their determination, their vileness, or the extent of their menstrual cramps, all of these fictional people have some part of them that doesn't conform to the norms set up by the book they participate in.

In fact, critic Harold Bloom puts it this way when he's talking about Shakespearean characters like Hamlet, Bottom, or Falstaff: The work that these characters are in aren't able to contain them.

When I say a character is stubborn, I mean they aren't willing to fit neatly into the story you have created around them. Do you want them to go down the dark basement so that the monster will have a chance to eat them? Do you want them to forget to look both ways before crossing the street? A memorable character doesn't give a flying frick about what you want! She or he doesn't care about your themes or your foils or your three act structure. She or he is going to do whatever the hell she or he wants to do because that is how vital they are...that is how stubborn they are.

One of my favorite writers today is Khuzali Manickavel. Her short story "Because Sometimes It Is Magic And Sometimes It is Everything Else" makes my mouth water every time I think about it. The story makes me feel like an utter failure in every way.

Needless to say, I have studied her writing extensively, and the one thing I've picked up from this is that a vital character and a pre-planned plot rarely if ever go hand in hand. A truly vital character will drive your story and take it to unexpected places.

Isn't there a term for that?

Many writers in the literary realm consider their work to be character driven. But, often the characters in those "character driven" stories aren't very memorable at all. I don't mean this in a bad way, since this category includes some of my other favorite writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Cormac McCarthy. But, I feel like these works aren't about characters so much as they are writing about insight, or about life. Reading them teaches me about universals, not about individual people. The characters often are interchangeable.

That's all fine and good--really, I wouldn't mind writing like Jhumpa Lahiri at all--but if you're after a great character, if you want that person that can't be contained, you must give them the freedom to be stubborn.

In my own experience, I stumbled upon one of my best characters quite on accident. I had written a book told from the point of view of three main characters. But, it wasn't any of these characters that stole the show. It was a stuttering, lanky teenage boy who collected women's underwear and tore the legs off live crabs that everyone said was memorable.

Think about your characters...especially the ones you or others have loved the most. Are they stubborn? Do they make up their own rules regardless of what you'd like them to do?


  1. David, excellent thoughts here. If the character didn't defy what we expect, it wouldn't be a good read. A stubborn character typically has a head-strong nature that keeps me reading. I find, though, that some books have characters that aren't very active in their own lives. Several big books I've read lately in the YA category have MCs that seem passive in their own lives. That is very frustrating as a reader. I would take stubborn over passive any day!


  2. I personally wouldn't want to read about a character who doesn't have the common sense to look both ways before crossing the street.

    Characters have to act out of their own motivations; if the author makes them do something they normally wouldn't just to drive the plot, it shows. It's our job to discover our characters' motivations and let them act according to their own natures.

  3. If I may add one more comment: characters have to be stubborn to keep going when we throw so many obstacles between them and their goals!

  4. Adventures, I admit to having a very passive character when I first started my novel. He didn't do anything. He didn't say anything. He basically just let everything happen to him. I think because of that, hardly any readers could sympathize with him.

    Sandra, I agree that a reader can sense when a character is acting just to fit into a plot. I think in general readers are more sensitive to a writer's devices than we realize, even if they can't quite explain what isn't working for them. I think my characters (almost) always look both ways. :)

  5. I can plot until the cows come home but my characters just wind up doing things I don't expect/want and then I have to fix the plot to fit their selfish little needs...the bastards!

  6. Great post Davin...

    I find myself worrying about this now. My characters act in ways that sometimes surprise both I and the reader, but larger than life? I doubt it.

    What can you do if you characters are everyday joes and janes?

    Lots to mull over.


  7. You articulated this thought very well. I was just thinking about this the other day-- WHY outlining doesn't work for me. If I outline, I go through all the trouble of writing my story without asking my characters how they feel about it. I might stick to it for thirty, forty, fifty pages-- but eventually, they'll get tired of my yanking them around like toys and make their own opinions known. And thus I don't bother with outlining, because it's much easier to ask myself how my characters would react to all the nuances going on around them one step at a time than all at once.

    Great post!

  8. Stubborn, and sometimes a total bitch. Frequently, however, it is those side characters that give us more flexibility b/c we feel like our MCs need to stay within the bounds of normalcy a bit more.

  9. You've given me a lot to think about here... I write spec fic so the plots are usually more plot-driven, but I like to think my mcs usually drive the action in a certain direction. I'll have to read through again and analyze the characters.

    Great post!

  10. Andrew, For me that's often the best part of writing. Except when it's not. Then, it just sucks.

    Mayowa, My ideas on this are evolving, so feel free to dispute me or call me names. I think it's perfectly all right to write about everyday people. But, I'd argue that doing so makes for a different type of story, one that isn't character driven. An everyday person, or an average person, is more likely to represent a larger group, and I think the story based on that ends up being more about society. Again, Jhumpa Lahiri comes to mind. She's brilliant.

    L.T. That's how I feel about outlining too. I think the outliners here would say that we probably just aren't outlining in the right way. That's probably true, but it doesn't help me get any better at it. An outline probably can be character driven if one starts the outline with a lot of knowledge of character. I'm never in that position.

    Bane, I think that's totally true. Side characters have more freedom. But, I do often ask myself what would happen if I treated all my characters this way. I've written some short stories with that sort of premise, and honestly, they are some of my favorite short stories. They also tend to get published rather quickly.

    Tere, Do you tend to develop your plots around your characters? I think a strong plot can fit with a strong character as long as the character comes first. Again, I may be wrong. I'm just thinking about these ideas.

  11. I think you're sort of setting up a "plot versus character" thing here that is a false dichotomy. I don't believe that novels/stories are either plot- or character-driven. I think that's one of many oversimplifications that non-writers use in order to talk about novels/stories. In my world, plot and character are inseparable, and when I outline, I am not so much thinking of plot as I am thinking about a character moving through an episode in their life, so I'm thinking mostly in terms of meaning. "Outlining" is not a synonym for "plotting."

    I do agree that the characters who seem to stick with readers are those who don't fit comfortably into their surroundings. But I don't know if that "mis-fit" has to be visible to the side characters surrounding him. I think Faulkner got it right when he said that good drama is "the human heart in conflict with itself." I have a massive headache and I'm a bit unfocused, so forgive me if I'm talking completely tangentially to what you're posting about!

  12. Sometimes a framework limits too much, and sometimes it helps. I started my first few novels completely character-driven. I wrote some very cool characters that did interesting things, but the plots meandered and didn't have a clear arc.

    In my current WIP, I wrote a great big outline. My characters are not all turning out the way I imagined them at first. Sometimes parts of my plot have to be amended, but I'm trying to stick to the main points. There can be many reasons why a person would do a certian thing, so I'm fitting character and plot together like an increasingly complex puzzle.

    For example, I initially wanted Princess Rosemarie ("Sleeping Beauty") to prick herself with a spindle because she was depressed (sort of like a teenage suicide attempt/cry for help). This event takes place about 1/4 of the way into the book. As I wrote the story, Rosemarie's character became much smarter, angrier, and more impulsive than I had previously imagined, and I liked her that way. Critique group readers also liked the snappish, precocious kid better than a sadder, mopier version. So I kept her that way. She still pricked herself, but her motivations were rage, hurt, and curiosity instead of sad self-destructiveness.

    In another example, I had a secondary character who was very amusing but kept pushing the plot in distracting directions. I chose to go back to the beginning with him and change his personality completely.

    As I move forward in the story, I may have to make larger changes to my plot outline--or not. It helps to have that outline so I can ask myself when I come to parts that aren't working, "Would it be better for the story to change this person or this event?"

    Because both plots and characters can be amended, and I want both to turn out strong in the end.

  13. All my characters are stubborn. They hate the leash I try and place them on which is annoying. In the end though I like what they produce, so I don't complain much.

  14. Scott, I think that's fair. I didn't originally set out to say that plot and outlining were the same thing. But, I'd say if one were to start with an outlining (or a first draft in my case) and that same one wants to write a character driven story, one should start with characters rather than say a sequence of events. The starting source whether you outline or not controls what type of story you write. It may be a simplification to categorize everything as character-driven or plot-driven. I was using a very shallow definition of plot.

    Genie (by the way, do you prefer Genie or Jeannie?), what you're describing is what I ended up doing with most of my own stories. It does feel like a puzzle, a series of compromises. But, I still wonder if this waters down our characters. Does having story as a priority (whatever "story" is) mean that character is less emphasized? I'd argue that it does. Again, I'm not saying one way is right or wrong or that one type of writing is better or worse, but I do get excited by memorable characters! Thanks soooo much for your examples!!

    T. Anne, I wouldn't complain either. :)

  15. Thanks for including Ann in there! I've really not read any or much of most of the books you've mentioned. But I have with Anna Karenina, and I think melodrama in books is almost a dead art. I've been trying to revive it a little, mostly because I like it.

    And I think in modern times at least, more great plots have been created than great characters. Great, especially real-seeming characters are very tough to create partly because readers know characters are just figments on pages. I'm almost always focused on hopefully creating great characters. Every other fictional "part" must suit them, not the other way around.

    I think that with literary works, most tend to have less plotting, so then they're called character-driven by default. But some of these works seem more setting-driven or time-driven; even the characters take a backseat then. A literary story set in modern times will sometimes be more about the characters' relationships within the setting rather than her relationships within herself. To me, character-driven means the characters are a world's engine, or are in the driver's seat controlling the engine. Most of the world couldn't exist as it is if those specific characters were removed and replaced with others.

    I think what you said here is very true: "An everyday person, or an average person, is more likely to represent a larger group, and I think the story based on that ends up being more about society."

  16. Oh, yeah. I have a 12-year-old boy who walked into a fantasy WIP. I needed him to do something to propel the MC's story, but he became a lifeforce. People who read my early drafts still ask about him, if I'm still going to finish that story. He was quite stubborn and wonderful.
    In my new WIP, there is a sister who has suddenly become that stubborn, amazing sidekick.
    You're right that characters like these don't seem to want to be contained in the stories.
    That made me think about fan fiction, which I don't write or read. But I wonder if that is what propels it, more than simply crushes on characters.

  17. Really good post, D.

    Can you post a link to Kuzhali's story? Is it on the web? Was it on her book? She is a really good writer.


  18. Forgive my lateness today. I've been sick and not feeling well, but I had to read your post because I agree with it in every way!

    I think it's important to let our characters be stubborn. I think one of the worst things a writer can do is be more stubborn than a character full of life and drive. To kill that can kill the character, and I've done it many times, sadly.

    One of the things I discovered, however, was that as I wrote the outline for my novella, Cinders, I kept the plot wide open and let the character decide then and there what would happen, and I was surprised! I don't know if that character will be memorable or not, or if I've succeeding in letting her remain stubborn, but it's a foot forward I think.

  19. Davin,

    You are a genius, honest. My novel is one of those "society novels." I never made that connection between the type of characters I had and the type of novel before.

    Thank you

    And i wouldn't call you names...except perhaps for SHOWOFF :)

  20. I hope you feel better soon, Michelle! Rest and pamper yourself :o).

  21. Great post, Davin. Thoughtful and meaty.

  22. The four strongest (my favorite) characters I've ever written totally stole the show from the regularly scheduled players.

    One rose up and declared himself the romantic hero when he was supposed to be a bit player who would soon be killed off. Another tried the same stunt but then totally explained to me exactly why he should win the girl (and he did).

    The third turned out to be the pivitol character in my second novel manuscript and to me now he is the book...another angry teenaged boy since, you know, that's something I've never been in my life it surprised me, I didn't know I had him in me.

    Lastly was a cute but incredibly scary film student in the first screen play I ever tried my hand at. She is the one that everyone who reads it, remembers.

    All hail the rebels. I'd love to someday have someone say that a work I wrote wasn't big enough to contain the characters that inhabited them. Now there, in my book, is a compliment (no pun intended).

    I've learned- where the characters lead, that is the road I must follow. I'm just taking dictation.


  23. I love those strong characters that surprise us. I think it is in the unusual way the approach the situations they are in that make them so memorable.

    hey, do you have any extra of those guys laying around? I'm trying to figure out new work and would love a character to stand up and take control!

  24. FP, That's a great point about the categorization of character-driven fiction. Maybe Scott was saying a similar thing too, but from the point of view of plot. Perhaps it is wrong to only have plot-driven versus character-driven. I started talking about insight-driven, but as you mention here, there are a lot of other possibilities. I love reading character-driven works. I don't always feel like I have to write them, but I do appreciate them.

    Tricia, I've been in a similar situation regarding a past memorable character. I never did finish those stories, maybe because I didn't know how to do it with such a memorable character at the time. That's a very good point about fan fiction as well. I don't know enough about it to discuss it, unfortunately.

    edithroad, I've looked for Khuzali's story online a few times and have never been able to find it unfortunately. I have a secret copy of my own, though. Good foresight on my part! :P

    Michelle, I do hope you are feeling better. It must have been a blast to give your character all of that room to play. :)

    Mayowa, I hope it's helpful to see your work in a new way. You've probably known what it was all along, but maybe it's nice to have a name for it.

    Yat-Yee, I always aspire to be thoughtful and meaty.

    Bru, thanks for all of your examples! That film student sounds really fascinating! You're lucky to have stumbled across multiple memorable characters. You're probably much closer to being able to do that on command than I am. I still feel like I am waiting for luck.

    Tess, The answer is within YOU. :P I bet your latest work is great. I'm a big admirer of your writing.

  25. Wow, thank you Davin (I am sorry I should ask- this is your blog and all is it okay to call you Davin???) for the cool reply.

    I'm not used to ever getting replies to blog comments, another thing to love about the Lab (well that and all the Beaker references that the name Literary Lab puts into my head...Memememe).

    I don't do this sort of thing (the characters being stubborn) on command- I'll just have a basic idea for a character I need: an Irish cop for a sci-fi setting, an aspiring writer slogging through his day job at a coffee house- and then they just start telling me how its going to be.

    It's a blessing, and a curse...but so far, every time it has benefitted the story and the stories in which no one stands up and demands to be heared are the ones I am never satisfied with.

    Thanks again for the reply. Such a nice way to start the weekend (even if I'm a couple days late sorry)


  26. bur, You can absolutely call me Davin. Most people call me Davin or Domey. I'll pretty much answer to anything as long as I know you're talking to me. :)

  27. So, of course, I go and spell your name wrong. Sorry, Bru!

  28. LOL oh gracious, you don't have to apologize. I'm not one of those people who could possibly get thinged up over a name misspelling or typo.

    Well, unless it's on the cover of my novel someday if (when? if? when!) I ever get published then I might be a tad put off by it. Until then, it's all good.


  29. Davin- Thank you so much for mentioning Kuzhali Manickavel- I found some of her stories and read them after you mentioned her- loved 'Dynamics of a Window'. I love her voice- which is very refreshing after reading the same old same old 'Indian writers writing in English', who either write about the immigrant experience or about an India that doesn't really exist anymore( disclaimer: am not judging - just making an observation). Kuzhali somehow manages to be both whimsical, insightful and funny..

    Also found her blog which is absolutely hilarious- you have to read this if you haven't:

    p.s can you tell I spent most of my day reading her instead of working- all your fault Davin..:P



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