flimsy characterization

I found this deliriously titled how-to for writing supporting characters just as I’ve been struggling with creating my own. The point about “characters make plot” really hits home as I find I’ve been trying to force one to satisfy my vanity.

Because my protagonist and most of the other characters who Do Stuff(™) are men, I really want to write a female friendship in here to alleviate the sausagefest. My excuse is my other POV character, the control-freaky gentry lady, is stressed, overworked, and about to get a long-term guest she doesn’t like, so I’d like her to have a confidante in the house.

Turns out I’m jumping through narrative hoops trying to make this happen. I want the characters to be near equals, but there were genuinely no other women in the family, so I’m thinking, maybe a high-ranking servant like a housekeeper? And if I can make her a closet heretic of some sort (proto-Quaker? Cunning woman? [I’ve been reading too much Religion and the Decline of Magic]), she’d be an excuse to show off my mad research skills…

But despite multiple test drafts she doesn’t end up doing anything apart from react to the gentry lady. My efforts to give her depth are failing because while I can imagine what she is I’ve not been clever enough of a writer to make her do anything (housekeeping notwithstanding).

Unfortunately (?) my research reveals that most 16th century servants were men, and the real-life gentry lady’s brother is perfectly positioned to take the role of lead servant: he was caretaker of the house when she and her family left England so it’s not too much of a logical stretch to have him as the “steward” (many younger siblings acted as servants for their elders during this time). Also, as he becomes caretaker I already have a built-in finale for the 3 “beats” Wendig describes.

So, not a woman confidante but he’s certainly in her corner, and he does stuff (like flub the accounts so the gentry lady gets to show off her mad skills). Also easier to write, because I’m more familiar with the sibling dynamic than the mistress-servant relationship: I’ve tried both approaches and wound up with one colorless, stilted scene with the housekeeper but a delightful bickering 800 word ramble with the brother.

The real problem is that I’m letting my own obstinate desire to write someone I WISH were there instead of someone who will move the story forward.

There’s at least other woman in the story I can have her turn to, a former employer who’s unimpressed with her husband’s spirit conjuring, so there’s fodder there for complaint and conflict, but I’m not sure I can get her in there 3 times. Back to the drawing board…


5 thoughts on “flimsy characterization

  1. robakers says:

    I had a problem like this in my work. About mid stream in the work, I changed the gender of one of the men to a woman. Different name and plumbing but otherwise keep it the same. It really worked.

    Maybe you keep the steward as a male but change one of the other characters to a women. And/or add another minor female character who is an equal to the gentry lady who can be a sounding board while they drink tea. This will give the steward the opportunity to offer the proper advice/guidance.

    Since you know the story the best, it ultimately up to you to find the best solution. Best wishes.

  2. A. Thurman says:

    Our of curiosity, what made you decide to switch genders?

    I do have other women characters coming up, but not until later in the story, and I selfishly want her to have someone to talk to *now* 😛 I guess the delay is a way to ratchet up the tension; file under “happy characters are boring, etc.”

  3. JLS says:

    Amazing how some characters have minds (and genders) of their own, despite what their creator thinks. And those uppity ones often are the best. 🙂

  4. dustdaughter says:

    Would it be out of character for her to confide in a journal or diary? Or would it take people out of the story, do you think?

    • A. Thurman says:

      I don’t think it would take people out of the story; my only concern is that it would turn into a lot of telling, not showing. I’m still a novice writer and I fear that reading long stretches of a character’s writing would just get boring.

      Things get easier once Joanna Kelley enters the household because they can definitely talk freely – both their husbands are into the same weird stuff.

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