Thursday, 7 March 2013

Complex Characters

Continuing my Thursday Challenge to myself to click ‘Random Article’ in Wikipedia and write about whatever article comes up first, and also link the topic in some way to writing.
Today’s article, for a change, is actually a literary one – The Spoils of Poynton by Henry James. I’ve not read this book, but the article gives a brief summary of the plot, which is basically a struggle between a widow and her son over a house with antique furniture.
It occurred to me, as I read about the various characters, that they seemed fairly one-dimensional. The widow is an ‘unprincipled dominator’ who bulldozes her way over other people to get what she wants. The son is weak and ‘brainless’, often very confused. He’s engaged to a woman called Mona, who is coarse and bumptious, and wants the valuable furniture in the house. The narrator of the story is Fleda, who is sensitive but victimised by more decisive people.
I’m often ‘put off’ by characters who only appear to have one dimension like these characters seem to have. As I've not read the story, I accept that the summary may only be describing their main characteristics. I hope so because most people (in my opinion, anyway) are complex. We’re a product of our childhood, our environment, and our life experiences, and different facets of our characters will be apparent in different circumstances. For example, is the widow in this story just a domineering old woman who likes to have everything her own way? Or is she frightened of losing her home and treasured possessions as she gets older?
Part of our ‘job’ as writers is to explore these different facets of the characters we create and, in some cases, give reasons for the way they act. This doesn’t necessarily mean we should make everything they do or say ‘fit’ with some preconceived character analysis. After all, people can and do act ‘out of character’ at times. Quite often we can’t define, even to ourselves, why we might have acted or reacted in a specific way to something or someone. It may have nothing at all to do with our childhood or upbringing, but simply be a result of how we were feeling at that particular time.
However, it’s worth remembering our characters don’t just suddenly ‘appear’ in our stories, but they all had ‘lives’ beforehand, which may influence how they behave in the story we give to them.


  1. This is a great reminder.. Sometimes I get stuck thinking about the lives my characters had beyond the page I introduce them on. Thank you for this.

  2. Mimi, I try not to get too 'bogged' down in their previous lives, unless there's something that directly impinges on the story. In my 'Fragrance of Violets', for example, the heroine distructed men in general because of her father's behaviour. In contrast, the heroine in my 'Her Only Option' didn't really have any hang-ups from her previous life!

  3. This is an amazing challenge you've set yourself-- and I loved this post :)

    Co-host, A to Z Challenge 2013