Building Character(s)

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Handsome-Man-ReadingReaders tell me all the time how much they like many of my characters. They say that they feel like people they could know and have as friends. I’m a firm believer in Ray Bradbury’s sage advice to give readers someone to root for—I think that is what makes reading exciting. As Sol Stein always said about reading manuscripts submitted to him for possible publication, “I want to fall in love.” To me that is all you need to remember when setting out on a writing, and thus reading, adventure. I want to fall in love with my characters so much that I want to follow them to see where they are going and to cheer them on along the way.

Lately I’ve read, or started to read, an awful lot of books that feature characters I have a hard time getting interested in. Either they are one dimensional and boring or they are just not the sort of people I want to spend the hours it takes to read a book with. I’m trying to figure out why that is. Are there more authors writing about boring people? Or am I just getting pickier. Last night I started thinking about great characters from books I loved; characters that linger long after the book is over.

Probably the first was Jo March. I don’t remember how old I was when I first read Little Women and it is still one of my favorite books but, more than the actual story, it was Jo that I loved maybe because I identified with her in so many ways. Well, she wanted to be a writer. And sh came from a big family that she loved very much. But more than anything, it was her vulnerability and willingness to go that extra step. I still remember vividly the scene in which she cut off her hair and sold it rather than ask mean old Aunt March for the money so her mother could go take care of her father who had been wounded in the Civil War.

Shortly after that I read Jane Eyre for the first of many times and, again, I loved the story but I also loved Jane. Unlike Jo March she had no family except her horrid aunt and cousins. But Jane was persistent and she had a sense of self-worth that, young as I was, I recognized.

In high school I fell madly in love with Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. He was everything I thought a man should be: mature, dignified, intelligent, good, plus he was also a crack shot with a rifle. I loved the scene where the town sheriff (Heck Tate, I swear, I didn’t know I remembered that until now) asked Atticus to take the shot needed to kill a rabid dog and the utter astonishment of Atticus’s children when he did it.

Some years back, when I read A.S. Byatt’s Possession, I became quite enthralled by Maud Bailey, the beautiful but quirky professor of feminist literature. Maude fascinated me because she was brilliant but also somewhat wounded by a relationship that she could not quite put behind her. In Kiana Davenport’s Shark Dialogues I loved both Pono, the magnificent matriarch of a large Polynesian family. I loved her fearlessness and her endless love for Duke Kaloha, who was quite memorable as well.

It’s hard to say what it is that makes one character more captivating than another. I have read all of Alice Hoffman’s books and loved them but, of all her characters (and they are wonderful characters) the one that lingers in memory is Julian Cash from Turtle Moon. Why? I’m not sure—he is an interesting mix of strength and emotion, a homely man with a scarred face, who loves his dogs but does not think himself lovable.

A few years back when Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was published it seemed like every woman I know was in love with Henry Winter, myself included. I found this quite fascinating because Henry was such an odd character. He was an intellectual snob, aloof and removed from most company and yet generous and kind with his friends. He saved Richard’s life yet had no compunctions about taking the life of someone else.

I think about these characters—and more—when I am writing because they have qualities that I want to develop in the characters I create. I think the most interesting thing about creating characters is understanding their motivation, they need a personal psychology. That is always at the core of great characters. From Jean-Benoit Aubéry to Harry Potter and from Lady Brett Ashley to Scout Finch, these are people I can think about, love and root for, and keep as friends for a lifetime.

Thanks for reading.

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About Kathleen Valentine

From the Allegheny Mountains where she grew up, to the Gloucester seaport where she wrotes, Kathleen Valentine loved nothing more than listening to the stories that people tell while sitting on front porches, gathered around kitchen tables, or swapped in coffee shops and taverns. Her collection of legends, folklore, and tall tales were woven into her fiction. The award-winning author of novels, novellas, & short story collections, as well as books of knitting patterns, & a cookbook/memoir about growing up Pennsylvania Dutch, Valentine has been listed as an Amazon Top Selling Author in Horror, Mystery/Suspense, Cooking, and Knitting. As a writer her primary interest was delving into the psychology of her characters. Her stories were sometimes mysterious, sometimes funny, usually romantic, and frequently frightening. Her characters ranged from lost children and grumpy old folks, to mysterious men and women who are not to be trifled with. On October 29, 2016, Kathleen passed away in her home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, America's oldest seaport.