Monday, 8 November 2010

Poor Little Me, a Character to Avoid

Fiona's comment on Playing What If got me thinking about my terrible tendency to write Poor Little Me. I can guarantee that the first draft of chapter 1 will begin with some character moaning on about how life is unfair, nobody likes her, nobody loves her, she's trying really hard but it's all going wrong, oh, oh, oh, poor little me. I'm not sure quite what it says about my innermost being but poor little me is, I'm afraid to say, my default setting.

The problem is two fold. First, I want you to like my central character. Show the character as the underdog and - goes the reasoning - bingo! We automatically like them. Maybe, but in real life while we may offer sympathy as our friend moans on about how hard done by they are, unless there's something really dreadful going on, secretly we're thinking: Get a grip!

Same with characters. Making them put upon doesn't actually make us like them. Just as we avoid the real life heartsink friend when they phone, we don't want to read about books about moaners - even if by p15 they've got their act together and are now kicking ass. It's too late.

Secondly, novels are about people with problems solving them. Characters without problems don't work. If you're writing contemporary women's fiction, as I do, then problems are more likely to be domestic in scale rather than baddie makes a bid for world domination a la James Bond novels. Husbands, children, boyfriends, jobs, parents, lovers, pets, money - it's the stuff of most of our lives, and most of us will have a good moan about some aspect of it some of the time. So, make the character someone with an everyday problem at the beginning, and we'll like them, yes? Actually, no.

Because I know whinging moaners are my natural setting, I have to forcibly make my characters cheery and resourceful, constantly plotting and planning to improve their lives. I think I'm getting better at it. Although Natalie, in A Single to Rome, is first met getting dumped by her boyfriend, she is determined that she can get him back and plans accordingly. Lu starts Kissing Mr Wrong on a mission to get Marcus and find out about Jack.

So, bringing this post back to Fiona's What If comment, if I make my character not like her job at the start I can guarantee that my innermost self is getting all geared up for a quick round of Poor Little Me. It's best avoided.

6 comments:

Camille said...

I've been grappling with this myself lately, so I'm grateful for the reminder!

Sarah Duncan said...

Glad it's not just me!

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Nadia said...

Yep, I realised I had done this in the first draft of my MS. I ended up getting quite annoyed with my heroine after a while and realised that it all stemmed from her 'poor me' beginnings...

Fiona Faith Maddock said...

Don't be too hard on yourselves guys. Sarah, I read 'Nice Girls Do' recently and I loved the heroine's (sorry her name escapes me) daffy delusional behaviour when she fell in love. I sensed an undercurrent of - shall we say - self pity, but only a streak of it. I liked her for it. Falling in love sends people off balance. I too, can very easily indulge in the 'poor little me' emotion. So what? Social and economic conditions are scary at the moment: one thing that is still free is a really good moan. Nothing like a good strident self-pitying rant to cheer youself up. If your protagonist is a moaner, let her do it passionately, stridently and pepper it with humour. And another thing...

Sarah Duncan said...

Ah thanks Fiona. You're absolutely right, characters can get away with some self pity if they've got humour and self awareness too.

Nadia - but at least you realised it. That's what I love about writing: you realise something, and then you can fix it.