Tuesday, 30 October 2012

How not to be popular: N M Browne

Unless you've been doing a 'Sleeping Beauty' for the last ten years you probably know that the web is awash with writing advice. Some of it is brilliant and some of it will make you want to murder the writer as energetically as I destroy my inner critic. One of the perennials is 'your characters ought to be likeable.' I really wonder about this one, but I fear it is becoming true as more editors pick up this kind of nonsense along with other prescriptive notions of what a book should be. I don't think it is true but it  leaves me in a bit of a quandry - how do you write likeable characters?
Like many writers I was not the most popular girl in the school, the one with the perfect teeth, the flicky hair and the knack of somehow setting the social agenda. I despised David Cassidy and Donny Osmand and had a healthy dislike of The Bay City Rollers, I could go on, but  let's just say I didn't get it and was too stupid to refrain from saying so. Not wise. I'll skim over my other social faux pas and summarise: I possess none of the attributes of the popular girl. Time has taught me to keep my mouth shut, but it is not a lesson I have fully absorbed even now. This is relevant to writing because I find it very hard to construct credible 'popular girls.' I am comfortable with loners, weirdos, girls who become foxes or boys, boys who become wolves or bears, but a straight forward popular girl has thus far eluded me. I can't cheat either. I can't make a character seem popular by obliging everyone else in the book to like her: characters who wander into my books tend to have borrowed some of my more undesirable traits and are often judgmental and outspoken. I can't shut them up, only write them out of the story which limits my cast options. I am really interested in how other writers do this.
 For most personality traits it is easy enough to find something in yourself and magnify it or produce the desired effect by observation, but likability is tough. I loathed Bella of 'Twilight' fame and look how popular she turned out to be ( David Cassidy didn't do badly back in the day either) and of course my favourite Harry Potter character is Hermione because she's an annoying goody good swot with whom I feel some distant affinity. I did try to write a likeable young woman in my last book. My daughter, who though she has escaped my worst characteristics has not escaped my tendency towards inconvenient honesty, pointed out that my heroine just wasn't that nice or likeable or indeed worth spending a whole book with. (Thanks, love!) I have put this book on hold for a time and decided to write one about monsters instead as I have more of a handle on them. If you have any compassion, you nice people out there, please drop me a few hints!


Vanessa Harbour said...

Fabulous post Nicky and so true. I empathise with so much of it including your comments on certain pop stars! Thanks for posting

Penny Dolan said...

I do agree with you on this one! All my girl characters tend to end up a bit stroppy and prone to too-sharp comments and occasional violence, which does make them more fun to write. And more interesting, I hope.

I've opted to believe that "likeable" means interesting. What it can't mean is whingy or moany - a thought that came to my mind during a recent Book Group re-reading of "Rebecca" where (imo) you get far too much of her poor-me-with-lank-hair inner voice - which wasn't so boringly evident in the screen adaptation.

Susan Price said...

Yes, I too loathed the Bay City Rollers & forthrightly told my partner so when I first met him and he asked if I remembered them. He then told me that he was related to two of them!
Like Penny, I interprete 'likeable' as 'interesting'. 'Nice' is far too goody-goody - what does it mean? Insipidly perfect good looks, always doing/saying the right thing? Bo-o-oring!
Your characters have to be people where the reader can say, 'I'm like that' - and as few of us are toothpaste advert pretty and perfect, a character with a few flaws is going to win every time.

Lily said...

I'd include it in the crap advice section too - but I agree that if you interpret it as 'interestng' or 'someone you can empathise with' it makes more sense. Did anyone really actually like those popular boys and girls back at school? i think many people are insecure underneath and so they like to read about realistic characters who are flawed and insecure too - or else about characters who are as stroppy and unconventional as the reader probably wanted to be but never had the confidence!

Susan Roebuck said...

Agree, agree! Oh boy - I remember hating the Bay City Rollers and their tartans, David Cassidy and the Osmonds!!! Flawed characters make much more interesting ones - imo. It's a bit like "writing about what you know" - sheesh - but then I avoid giving writing advice (I'm too insecure!!!!)

Joan Lennon said...

Monsters! Write me some monsters!

Jacey Bedford said...

Aww, damn. My problem is making my characters too nice. Especially my men.

But in general your characters don't have to be popular with all your other characters, they just need to have some feature that makes your readers root for them. I've always empathised with your characters, even (or especially) the awkward ones (Ursula from the Warriors books springs to mind. Complete fish out of water at school, but still a character I cared a lot about.) The ones who don't fit in are like 'us' - because who can honestly say that they ever felt truly popular. I remember hating the 'popular' girls at school because they were so insufferably smug - but in retrospect it was probably all an act.

I went to a BBC writers' workshop a couple of weeks ago and their trick was to give the character you want the reader/audience to empathise with 'a cat, a dog or a trumpet'. The first two are obvious. The character may snipe at the other humans but if they love their kitty, the reader/viewer will feel affinity. The trumpet was a little more difficult to explain, but it symbolised giving your character a passion (in this case learning to play the trumpet).

Well, that may be good advice, if a bit formulaic, but I keep coming back to the image of Blofeld (and the white cat) in the Bond movies. Did we empathise with Blofeld? Not at all.

I'll stick with the awkward 'everyman'.

Nicky said...

Can I write a monster with a trumpet - pretty please.

Rebecca wright said...

I love children’s literature, Nicola, I read Hunted and Shadow Web not long ago – right up my street, thoroughly enjoyed them! And love reading this blog. But it always bothers me when authors always seem to say they were never the popular ones at school. Comedians say the same!
Ok, I’ve never had anything published but I’m writing! I’ve always wanted to be a writer, especially books for teenagers, although I’m kind of stuck in an adults one I have to get finished before I try anymore children lit. but…and I think I’ll try and say this quietly, I think I was one of the popular girls in school!

I had a group of girls friends – similar to Georgia in the Louise Rennison books who loved every minute of it – we went out with the boys in the older years, we hung out with them at the discos’ etc – we never really smoked – that was for the bad girls although we did drink a bit before we turned up at the discos, short skirts and hair bands galore! But we loitered outside the girl toilets between classes and giggled when boys strolled down the corridor, walked round and round the playground hoping desperately to get Grant in year 11 to shout something at us, then go bright red when he deemed to look our way!
And I never knew I was popular until a few years ago, when someone who was in the year below said, you were definitely in the popular crowd! Oh, i thought, we just had a good time!
I hope this doesn’t mean I won’t be able to write as brilliantly and poignantly as other children’s authors. All you authors and comedians out there that didn’t think you were popular – if you asked everyone in the school now, they would probably say, oh yeah, you were really funny, or I always wanted to be like you in some respect or another. You just didn’t notice! I hope so anyway! I can’t help feeling like I’ve failed already as a writer because I was too popular in school, as if it’s a rite of passage to be unpopular. But anyway, no matter how popular you were in school, NMBrowne, I love your books now!

Nicky said...

Aw thanks Rebecca.
I think your experience might help you write great books that capture that elusive feeling of belonging and having fun. I think it helps to have a sense of what that feels like.
As for myself I've never minded being a bit of an outsider. I don't know if outsiders are drawn to becoming writers or just that being writers they are drawn to writing about it!

Nicky said...
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