I've never gotten along particularly well with my characters. No matter how much I try to coax them into complexity, to elicit cautious sympathy or even love-hate, they refuse. They sit there stubbornly on the page, tongues hanging out of mouths, defying any form of literary prodding. I've done everything to get a different reaction from them.
In one of my darker moments, I caught myself yelling at my characters, threatening to dump my laptop into a bath full of water if they didn't shape up soon. I was so fed up once that I killed them all off, one by one, until nothing was left but a household of objects, sitting motionless and ageing.
It's not that my characters lack a motive or are short on anything interesting to do. No, instead they consistently fall into that black hole of literary missteps - stereotypes. Seeking sanity, I turned to Angie Abdou, guest author at the 2011 Whistler Readers and Writers Festival, for some emailed advice:
Piech: What, in your opinion, is the most essential ingredient to creating real characters that are believable, complex, flawed and authentic?
Piech: Out of all the characters you have created, who is your favourite?
Abdou: For some reason, Fly from The Bone Cage jumps into my head when I read this question. I've always liked him - probably because he's the most selfless of my characters. He cares about his friends. He's not solely motivated by his own selfish desires. Most of my characters tend to be a lot more ego-driven than he is.
Piech: Do you find there is a common trait to many of your characters?
Abdou: My characters are all looking for a way to find meaning in their lives. They're often at a crux where their identity is fluid. They tend to be somewhat isolated and have trouble making real connections, even with the important people in their lives - their identity and interactions have a performative quality to them.
Piech : How have the characters you have created for your stories changed over the last 10 years?
Abdou: You stumped me here. In some ways, my characters haven't changed all that much. I am interested (and have always been interested) in deeply flawed characters who often make bad decisions but hopefully readers root for them anyway, simply because they're human. My characters tend to be on the verge of transition - in Anything Boys Can Do that transition had to do with relationships, whereas in The Bone Cage and The Canterbury Trail the transition has to do with the looming responsibilities of adulthood. In that way, my approach to characterization hasn't changed. As to the way I go about creating those characters, I hope I'm getting better at it... And will continue to get better at it as I grow as a writer.
Piech: In The Cantebury Trail , you write about a fictionalized version of Fernie. Was it difficult to create believable characters living in a town where you also live?
Abdou: The Canterbury Trail (especially its approach to characterization) stems more from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales than it does from the town of Fernie. Chaucer takes the main types from Medieval society and has a representation of each - the praying class, the fighting class, the working class, a woman, a teacher, upper class, lower class. The pilgrimage gives him an excuse to put together all of these people who would never normally associate. He starts with types and fairly clichéd representation, but the pilgrims (ideally at least) grow out of these types and become individuals.
This approach lends itself very well to Fernie where there are clearly defined (and often referenced) types: the ski bum, the red neck, the hippy, the developer. I wanted more than one in each group to help me let them become individuals rather than types. For a pilgrimage, I used the mountain equivalent - a big powder day in the backcountry. I didn't find characterization in this book difficult at all - I had great fun with it. Now that I put it like that, FUN is probably a key ingredient in writing most novels.
Piech: Did writing The Cantebury Trail leave you with any epiphanies about writing that you didn't have beforehand?
Abdou: People who like The Canterbury Trail praise its fairness to all of the different groups and claim that it presents events evenly from each perspective (rather than favouring the nature lovers or the coal miners or the developers). I did work hard to get inside of each of these perspectives, which put me places I'd never been before... And that always involves epiphany.
Piech: What characteristic would you say contribute most to your success as a writer?
Abdou: Work ethic - I'm a hard worker, whether I'm running, swimming, teaching, writing, or whatever - I just like to work. That's lucky for me because hard work is essential to being a writer.
Piech: Do you have any advice for beginner writers?
Abdou: Don't quit your day job. Really. If you're looking to get rich or famous, lottery tickets would give you better odds. Write because you love it, and write what you want to write. Of course, there are tips that can make you better at it and, therefore, make it even more enjoyable - but for those you have to come to my workshop.
Originally published on the Vicious Circle blog, www.whistlerwriters.wordpress.com.
To learn more about developing believable characters, attend " How to Create and Push Around Your Characters" with Angie Abdou at the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival from 1:15 to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, October 15, 2011 in the Aava Hotel Boardroom 1.