WARTS and ALL
By Patricia Ann Jones
If there is anything more boring than a tall, dark and handsome protagonist with no discernable flaws, I'm at a loss to name it. The same may be said for an "Oil Can Harry" antagonist. Readers demand characters they can identify with and they do not identify with perfection positive or negative.
A character in one of my stories is a young man named Courtney McLeod, but you may call him Court. Now Court, is personable, handsome, and might have stepped into your life wearing a Scottish kilt and carrying a bagpipe. He won't, of course, but that's not saying he could not, should he be of a mind to do so. On first meeting Court, you'll notice he's much different from his moody cousin James. James is a brooder. A man not given to social graces as is Court. You will find James interesting with all his personality quirks and haunting flashbacks to the Civil War, but you may not like him. On the other hand, you'll find Court a perfect match for the lovely Caroline. Too bad, that James loves her as much or more than Court does.
Three main characters? Yes, and a fourth on the way, the mysterious, Dhan. Caroline and Dhan must wait for another article. Right now, we are concerned with these two men, one the protagonist (James), and the antagonist (Court) and how they present their real selves to the reader?
Court, with all his magnetic personality, has a couple of secrets that you learn about, but James and Caroline do not know. He is addicted to Absinthe for starters. Absinthe is a liqueur that if imbibed to excess can destroy the brain. Court also hates James with a fiery passion. Why? For starters, James is after his fiancee Caroline, but that isn't the real reason, oh no. The real reason no one will discover until . . . Sorry, you'll have to wait for that one. Let it suffice to say, Court is physically perfect, but a more imperfect soul than his does not exist . He hides his deviousness well, nevertheless, it does show although in only subtle foreshadows and in one major flashback to another time, another lifetime to be exact.
James is also a handsome man in his own way. Perhaps his face is too weathered, his nose a bit too long, but he is well over six feet tall and presents quite a picture in his Captain's uniform. He's, as aforementioned, a rather gloomy fellow, but a talented design architect, and the ladies' hearts' flutter when he asks them to dance. He has a way about him that creates a paradox in the mind's of those he meets. They want to like him, but his introverted personality keeps everyone at arms length, everyone except Caroline. All of his scars aren't on the inside, but the most fascinating aspects of this man, when revealed, are irresistible.
I think you're getting the idea by now that the good in both men are counterbalanced with the bad. Neither man is perfect, their warts, hidden at first, manage to show as you get to know them. Court, the villain, has a soft side that somewhat mitigates his evil side. Even when he is at his worst, the reader knows the poor man is deluded, not fully responsible for his actions. I've actually had readers of this story make excuses for him in their zeal to put him in a better light. James, at first unlikable, haunted by his war experiences and inner turmoil, shows his good side and the reader feels ashamed that they misjudged him. Still, he too is not innocent any more than is his cousin Court. These are dimensional characters because I, the author, know their backgrounds, every detail of them and gradually reveal these personalities in such a way that the story, as well as the characters, takes on a depth it would not have if I'd hidden the warts on my two main story people.
James and Court with all their various traits become real to you, the reader. You care about them, what happens to them, you cringe when they make mistakes, and rejoice when they do well. If this does not happen, then I've failed in my task as the writer. Remember, a major part of characterization is not the physical description, but what the character does and what he feels.
I developed each character before I ever wrote a word of the story. I knew who their parents were, where and when they were born, educated, what kind of foods they liked and disliked, how they dressed, what kind of little boys they were. I also knew what made them happy, sad, frightened, and exactly why they became the adults they are when you first meet them. Their background was cemented into my mind, and from all this knowledge I began the story. For each major character, I did the same research and study. Without this preparation, these men would have been cardboard and you would not care a twit about them or my story.
When a character first whispers in your ear that he or she wants to be a part of something you plan to write, grab them and put them under your mental microscope. Examine them, head to foot, as well as body and soul. Know them as well as you know yourself, better maybe. Once you've done this they'll stand before you, full-blooded, ready for action, story people and they'll show you everything, warts and all.
Jones is a published writer & a book critic for The Tulsa World newspaper
COPYRIGHT 2006 Patricia A. Jones All Rights Reserved