Doling out death

Here’s another reason fiction writing can be so difficult: Often, as a character develops, you realize that flaws, conditions, or some other thing you thought was integral to the character’s personality just doesn’t make sense, and you have to kill it off.

This is not the same as killing off the character, which I don’t tend to do since I’m not writing mysteries or thrillers. I’m talking about the hard—and very God-like—business of shaping a character into a believable person.

I’m wrestling with this now in the case of one of the characters in my new novel. She grew up in rural New York State in the late 1960s. I had given her a psychological problem that I’m not sure fits either the times or her background. I would love to keep the problem, since I think it adds a dimension of depth and interest. But I’m just not sure it will be believable.

On the other hand, perhaps this problem will turn out to be just the quirk that does make her believable, since another writing trap we struggle to avoid is the clichéd character (the hard-drinking Irishman, the fluff-brained cheerleader, the overworked executive).

And so I’ll tiptoe along the tightrope, imagining enough quirkiness to give my character depth and facets, but not enough so as to make readers shake their heads and say, “huh?”

The literary lions of the 20th century seem to have gotten a handle on this, as evidenced by such tabulations as Book magazine’s 2002 list, referenced on NPR’s web site. Reaching beyond the English-speaking world and outside the 20th century is The Fictional 100, created by Lucy Pollard-Gott, author of a book of the same name. She surmises that the reasons behind the characters’ appeal and endurance “may lie in a deep psychological or mythic resonance, the artistry of their presentation, or the special circumstances of time and society that brought them into being and sustain their popularity.”

Whew. That’s quite a tall order for a humble fiction writer. But it pays to keep in mind that producing such a character, like reaching enlightenment, is not achieved by conscious striving. Rather, it’s done through the tiny, daily excisions and prunings, the deaths doled out to incongruent ideas whose demise makes way for a new and stronger character—one who just might, in future years, make a top-100 list.