The art of creating a lonely figure is an immense task when writing a novel or short story and one that I have been grappling with for the last couple of months with my debut novel, Obsession.
Ostensibly a crime fiction story, Obsession deals with a world where everything is corrupted or corruptible and my main character, Evelyn Giles, is more than aware of it. Wherever she looks, she sees bent police officers, paid-off politicians and nothing but enemies. She has been fighting against it for two years, trying to bring down the man that she thinks is responsible for it all and, as such, has made a lot of enemies in the process.
That was my starting point for the whole story. A character who hates everyone around her because, for all she knows, everyone around her is against her. As such she is a morally righteous character, the sort of person who we really want to get behind. In theory, at least, she should be quite a likeable character who we feel sympathetic towards…
But my story isn’t about her trying to bring down the man who has caused all the corruption. It is about what happens to her when she is torn away from that investigation and forced to investigate a murder that is completely unrelated.
How does she react to this situation?
Inevitably she isn’t interested. This crime is a distraction from what she believes is her real goal. She has no more interest in solving it than she has in listening to static for four hours. I have put her in a situation that she doesn’t want to be in and the people around her don’t want her there either; a spiral of hate and disinterest if you will.
We might still be behind Giles in these circumstances if we knew from the outset the exact situation that she was in. Maybe everyone around her really is corrupt. Maybe she suffers from hallucinations and can’t distinguish reality from her imagination. But the nature of good story telling tells us that we can’t just give the audience the whole story in the first chapter. If we do that we have nothing to reveal to them, no journey to take them on.
So how could you possibly create a likeable character under such intense circumstances? The temptation is to create a massive-sob-backstory; maybe her father was killed in a car accident and she has nightmares about it every night. You start off with a nightmare when we first meet her – get the instant sympathy vote. It’s a nice idea, but it’s been used far too often in my opinion.
Maybe we have her stopping an incident – a bomb of something. All of her colleagues thinks she is wrong but she goes in anyway and stops it. Instantly we want to side with her and not her colleagues. But again, it’s not the most original way of doing it.
It’s a hard question to answer. How do you make a lonely and unlikeable character, likeable to your audience?
There is an old saying; write what you know. I happen to think it’s a load of cobblers. If you only write what you know where’s the imagination and the creativity? If you write what you know, the story you tell your audience is probably going to be the same story they’ve read a dozen times before…
However, on this occasion, I have written what I know. The character of Evelyn Giles is a solitary character and in many ways reflects myself in that fashion. I wouldn’t say I was lonely, not remotely close. I have a good network of friends and work colleagues who I enjoy being around. But, from time to time, I will shut myself away for days on end and it was only when doing this recently that I realised what I can do to my character to make her more likeable…
Introducing my turtle and my terrapin, Adam West and Robyn. Thanks to these little guys I have worked out my way of giving Giles the human, likeable trait that I was after.
And if you want to find out whether it worked or not, I guess you’ll just have to wait for their appearance (albeit with new names) in Obsession when it finally gets finished…