Back in high school and college, friends sometimes set me up on blind dates. Nice guys all, but nothing clicked. How, as a writer, can I set up an enjoyable blind date between reader and character? They’ve never met before the reader picks up the book. My hope is to craft a character with whom readers will click.
Writing advice is clear and consistent: A relatable character needs strengths, quirks, and one fatal flaw. The narrative must carry the main character through an arc of personal growth that involves facing the flaw head-on and overcoming it to do what must be done, revealing a theme in the process. All without coming across as formulaic.
I get it, or think I do, up to the moment I sit down to write. Then the questions bubble up: Who among us has one and only one significant bad habit? What’s the flaw for Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache to overcome, kindness? In an ongoing series, does character arc mean conquest of the same flaw again and again, like Sisyphus’s stone rolling back down the hill?
Script consultant Dara Marks defines fatal flaw as “a struggle within a character to maintain a survival system long after it has outlived its usefulness.” Going back to my novel-in-progress, I’ll try stepping away from moral judgments or bad habits to ask what old way of being no longer works in my character’s new situation. Perhaps I might even step away from fiction to ask the same question of myself.
What a comfort to be told that what we believe is true! Even if our belief feels unpleasant, to hear it affirmed is somehow to be reassured. In sooth, this affirmation soothes, as any soothsayer might predict.
Sooth and soothe come from the same Old English root. Soth was originally an adjective meaning “genuine” or “true.” The noun form meant “truth”; the verb form, “to verify or show to be true.”
Soothe emerged in the 1560s for humoring or flattering others by asserting what they said was true. It denoted the comfort of uncritical agreement, not the pain of truth confronting falsehood. Soothe meaning “to calm gently” appeared in the 1690s, finally detached from any relationship to truth.
To learn the error of a former belief is disorienting at best. It may be exciting, it may be distressing, but it rarely soothes. Small wonder we go to such lengths to avoid it. Small wonder our efforts to persuade others (or theirs to persuade us) by facts and logic are often met with deaf ears.
Family and friends had been chatting over appetizers for more than an hour when I realized I’d forgotten to put the turkey in the oven. I spent the rest of the dream out and about in ever more ludicrous attempts to avert a Thanksgiving disaster. After waking up, I lay abed for minutes trying to come up with a solution. Knowing it was only a dream couldn’t stop my mind from racing.
Reason may grasp a change as soon as it happens, but emotions take time to clear the system. Danger averted can leave you still shivering with fright. I once read a theory that humor lies in the disconnect between what you know after the joke reaches its punchline and the lingering sensation of what you were led to expect.
Perhaps this is why emotion is at the core of the narratives that stick with us, fact or fiction. Though I grew up on Sherlock Holmes’s intellectual feats, the mysteries that draw me now have characters I care about, not just puzzles to solve. As a writer, the challenge is not just to weave a story line but to engage the reader’s emotions. How to make that happen is something I’m still trying to learn.
Equinox comes later on this year’s calendar than most. Summer is long gone by other measures: cool nights, students back in school, more flowers faded than coming into bloom.
This summer I wrote less and gardened more than usual. It’s my third year to relish the perennials that came with the house and the wildflowers that arrive uninvited. No expert gardener, I often fail with new plantings. More successful is my “unnatural selection” approach: choose which hardy volunteers to encourage and pull the rest out of their way.
Like so much in gardening, it’s a good metaphor for the rest of life. I don’t need many new plantings; apart from wishing family lived closer and bodies worked better, I have pretty well all I need or want. The trick is to keep culling out the pieces that no longer fit, so the favorite elements of my days have space to grow and thrive.
With so many labor-saving devices to help around the house, it’s odd how cleaning and cooking can fill up a day. Blame twentieth-century advertising. New housekeeping technology such as the vacuum cleaner, once invented, needed a market. Rather than showing women freed up for creative arts or other pleasures, advertisers depicted them joyfully using new products to keep ever more sparkling homes.
“Because housewives are engaged in an unsupervised job, which increasingly has produced order and cleanliness rather than useful, material products, their daily compulsion to do the work must be internalized,” sociologist Bonnie Fox concluded from studying ads in the Ladies Home Journal back to 1909-10. The glorification of housework attracted women who in an earlier generation might have contributed to household income by keeping chickens or taking in laundry, sewing, or boarders. Not until the 1970s, when middle-class women took on more paid work outside home, did the hours they spent keeping house begin to decline.
If cleaning and cooking bring you joy, great. If not, a simple way to thumb your nose at corporate advertising is to lower your standards. Your comfort with doing less may increase from knowing that modern expectations of housekeeping arose to boost profits.
After years immersed in Tudor-Stuart England, I’m embarrassed to admit trouble keeping track of Queen Elizabeth I’s court. Sage counselor William Cecil, dashing courtier Robert Dudley, dour spymaster Francis Walsingham: Though I can match their names and portraits, they only came to life for me lately through Fiona Buckley’s mystery novels. Memorable, vivid detail is a gift of well-researched imaginative portrayals, whether in fiction, film, or the presentation of Elizabeth’s nobles at the Bristol Renaissance Faire last weekend.
The risk, for me, is to mistake the character brought to life for the character who lived. What novelists and screenwriters can’t know, they are free to make up. Unlike historians, they don’t have to break the flow with terms like “probably” or “perhaps.” Did Elizabeth and Dudley, her favorite, consummate their relationship? My opinion: She was too savvy and self-controlled to risk outright scandal or a child out of wedlock, even for her “sweet Robin.” But no one can know for sure. In the case of fictionalized accounts, readers and viewers who care will have to insert “probably” or “perhaps” for themselves.
Faced with the unprecedented challenge of sending people into space in the 1960s, NASA asked researcher George Land to predict which engineers were most adept at thinking outside the box. His simple tool predicted so well, Land tried it on 1,600 four- and five-year-olds, and later the same group as they grew. His results:
Age Percent scoring “creative genius”
We don’t lose creative ability so much as we learn to hold it in check. To prepare for the responsibilities of adulthood, we develop essential skills at judgment and decision-making. The prefrontal cortex isn’t fully formed until age 25. Land says when we try to generate and evaluate ideas at the same time, imagination loses. Adults who show childlike creativity are those who separate generation and evaluation into two separate stages, letting the mind run free before weighing the pros and cons.
Today’s favorite scapegoats for lost creativity are standardized testing and a school system designed to provide compliant industrial workers. I don’t buy it. Land did his research long before standardized tests became prevalent, and I’ve seen no evidence people were more inventive before the Industrial Revolution. If anything, children were pushed into adulthood even younger than today. What may be different now, due to rapid technological change, is an increasing need for creative imagination in meeting the challenges of adult everyday life.
“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate . . .”
- Oscar Hammerstein, South Pacific, 1949
Peanuts creator Charles Schulz showed new kid Franklin in a schoolroom with white kids in 1968. Fred Rogers shared a foot bath with Officer Francois Clemmons in 1969. Hammerstein, Schulz, and Rogers withstood pushback for messages on race that were daring for their times. Having grown up on “You’ve got to be taught,” I’ve been jolted to read of research suggesting infants a few months old prefer their own race.
Is bias innate or does it have to be taught? I’d guess preference for people who look familiar is innate, especially those who resemble one’s primary caregivers. Pale-skinned babies raised by pale-skinned parents prefer pale skin. Babies raised primarily by mothers prefer women. My infant long ago, in a household of nearsighted adults, was fretful around people who didn’t wear glasses.
Some babies are more timid by temperament, others more drawn to novelty. While I no longer believe humans are born a blank slate, it matters what they’re taught. We can encourage safe exploration to cultivate curiosity and stretch tolerance for the unfamiliar. We can expose children to safe people of various shapes and colors, with and without glasses.
I’m reading my way through Fiona Buckley’s historical mysteries featuring Ursula Blanchard, fictitious half-sister to Queen Elizabeth I. Ursula strives to save her Protestant queen from Catholic threats to seize control and resume burning heretics, as happened under Elizabeth’s Catholic real half-sister Queen Mary.
Ursula hates the Inquisition, not the papacy, making the series palatable for readers of any faith or none. Mysteries set a few centuries back can't disregard religious conflict, but they rarely take sides except against cruelty and fanaticism. Still, readers may look in vain for light fiction about a gentle Jesuit priest trying to avoid capture and execution by Queen Elizabeth’s minions. Catholic protagonists emerge in novels set a bit later in Ireland or the Scottish highlands, fighting to preserve their independence and traditions from heartless English conquerors.
I'd guess readers of historical fiction today, at least while they’re reading, don’t much care about theology or ecclesiastical politics or seeking martyrdom or saving immortal souls. We do care about human decency, safety, autonomy, heritage, success for the underdog, and the freedom to shape our own lives. For leisure reading, if your historical sympathies lean toward one religious party more than another, pick an era where that’s the party fighting for survival, independence, or other secular values that resonate today.
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
- Orson Welles, screenplay for “The Big Brass Ring”
As any photographer might tell us, even the most representational art can change meaning with the placement of the frame. Picture a sweet, domestic snapshot of two children playing with a teddy bear on the bedroom floor. If you widen the frame to show the window with a stranger at the top of a ladder peering in, you hint at a far spookier story.
Every story, fact or fiction, requires the storyteller to choose where to start and stop. Reality is never done; as my mother used to say, “This too shall pass.” The artist—or journalist, or historian, or documentarian—must set the frame. Life is full of successes and failures, joys and sorrows, interwoven and each leading to the next. Comedy? Tragedy? It depends where you stop your story.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.