Today brings a special guest post from a wonderful and extraordinarily talented Anne Goodwin, who has also released her debut novel ‘Sugar and Snails’ TODAY. Get it on Amazon, immediately, I insist! Anne has kindly contributed to my Crafting Characters series and discusses creating awkward characters. So without further ado, I give you Anne Goodwin.
Six points to consider when creating an awkward character
One of the great things about fiction is spending time with people who, in real life, we might avoid. Morals are cast aside as we empathise with villains, root for the guilty to escape the law. Yet there are some types of character, despite being more familiar from our everyday lives, that don’t so readily evoke our sympathy on the page. I’m thinking of those glass-half-empty people, the prickly characters who seem to take life too seriously, the type of person it’s very hard to help. We all know them. Some of us are that way inclined ourselves.
My debut novel, Sugar and Snails, is in the voice of one such individual. For thirty years, Diana Dodsworth has kept other people at a distance in order to safeguard the secret of her past. Socially awkward, she can appear, both to her friends and to the reader, to be overly anxious and defensive, and somewhat self-absorbed. As I outlined in this article for Shiny New Books, her character makes perfect sense in the context of her experience, but first impressions count. Diana’s secretive nature could run the risk of alienating readers before they’ve had the chance to get to know her. To minimise this, as I refined the novel in draft after draft, I drew on a number of strategies to render Diana more engaging without compromising on her awkwardness. These might be useful to other writers toying with a character who isn’t all she seems.
1. High stakes
Although the reader doesn’t discover why until later in the novel, it’s clear from the first chapter that there’s something serious afoot. After an altercation with her partner, Diana doesn’t open a bottle of wine and get on the phone to her friend, but takes a Stanley knife and draws blood from her arm. The pain evokes a childhood memory of a similar situation, blood pooling on the bathroom floor. Perhaps a little awkwardness is forgivable in a woman so familiar with the dark side?
2. A jolly good reason
The reader who accompanies an awkward character through life’s ups and downs must be rewarded for their patience. They need to feel the journey’s been worthwhile. Since I’d built Diana’s character around her experience, this wasn’t a problem for me, trusting that readers would agree her awkwardness was justified. As an early reviewer, Victoria Best says, “Diana’s tale is a complex, fascinating and highly contemporary one … [that] takes us into the heart of an experience that most of us can scarcely imagine.”
3. Likeable characters who like her
When, in real life, a friend introduces us to a friend of theirs, we are disposed to like them. Similarly, if our awkward character is liked or loved by more engaging characters, the reader might tolerate their awkwardness a little longer. In Sugar and Snails, I gave Diana an eccentric larger-than-life best friend, Venus, and a potential partner, Simon, a straightforward and all-round decent chap.
4. Let the subsidiary characters voice the reader’s frustrations
Although I’m a reader who likes to make up my own mind and hate being told what to think, I feel at sea if I’m unclear whether the author wants me to take their awkward character at face value. While Diana isn’t always sufficiently self-reflective to treat the reader to knowing asides about her behaviour, she does have friends who can do that for her. So best friend Venus tells her, “But there are times I want to shake you, Di. It’s like you think taking care of yourself is a mortal sin.” (p194)
Comic novels thrive on the awkward character, but humour has a place in more serious novels too. While there aren’t many laughs in Sugar and Snails, I capitalised on whatever opportunity for humour arose. A truly comic approach would have been inappropriate for Diana’s situation (especially for a non-LGBT author creating an LGBT character from the outside). Alison Moore is a writer who softens the rough edges of her strangely endearing oddball characters (as, for example, in her latest novel, He Wants) while raising serious issues about the human condition.
6. Get feedback from someone who gets it
Feedback from someone who thinks all characters should be warm and cuddly might not be very useful, however well meant. But when you find someone who believes in your character, they can be a tremendous help in highlighting where you might have pushed their awkwardness too far. Sara Slack, my main editor with Inspired Quill, was a delight to work with. Because she totally understood Diana, I was happy to go along with her suggestions about toning down those places where she didn’t really need to be so brusque.
Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, is published this week by Inspired Quill. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.
My huge thanks to Anne for such an interesting post, and please do check out her new novel.