The one key secret of creating compelling characters

I had never heard of Emily Gould until I learned that she was being reinvented in the pages of the New York Times. Gould, I have learned, was a particularly aggressive blogger of personal confession and celebrity gossip, who has now graduated to becoming a semi-auobiographical novelist. Not an uncommon progression, in a time when an author’s blog is more read than their novels.

Funny, vicious and nakedly irreverent, her posts were so aggressive at times that they managed to incense even the customarily affable Jimmy Kimmel. While sitting in for Larry King on Mr. King’s talk show in 2007, he called her out on the show for irresponsible reporting and flagrant invasions of privacy. “You throw rocks at celebrities,” he scolded, then told her straight-faced: “I would hate to see you arriving in hell, and somebody writing a text message and saying, ‘Guess who’s here.’ ”

Looking back on the episode, the first of a series of public excoriations, Ms. Gould acknowledged, “I probably went around systematically rubbing people the wrong way for the first part of my career.”

via Reinventing Emily Gould – NYTimes.com.

All too often it’s the authors who shout loudest and generate the most controversy who come out on top in the blogosphere and associated social media tributaries. It can seem at times that aggression and indeed raw hate are the fuel that makes a literary career. It’s an irony, when what we so often seek in literature is wisdom, that literature’s creators display so little of it. But it’s not the hate on display that makes these writers such compelling magnets for our attention. At least not entirely.

The playwright David Mamet in his book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor argues that one key quality makes both a great character and a great writer. The reason writers can create stories that compel our attention is because they possess the key quality that our attention is most attracted to. And when I think through the stories that I am most compulsively drawn to, and the people who wrote them, I find I have to agree.

The quality that Mamet suggests is willpower. You might choose to label it ambition, ego, pride or self-centredness. But willpower is the word I think works best. The ways that willpower sometimes manifests itself can be off putting – aggression, hate, anger. However it can also manifest in far more charming ways – humour, whit, intelligence. But whatever form it takes, willpower is always compelling. At it’s most basic, willpower is the struggle of the individual human against the vast forces of society, the world, the entire universe, that conspire to keep us in our place. There isn’t a person alive who isn’t fascinated by those people who fight in the face of such untenable odds.

But. I don’t believe the best stories – or indeed the best anything – are made purely by force of will. Great artists don’t beat the world in to shape. Or even charm it to do their will. They move in harmony with their universe. They sense the larger forces that animate the world and give it meaning, and create the conditions that channel and express those forces as art. We don’t necessarily recognise art of this kind. It does not always demonstrate the force of will that commands our attention. Which leads me to suggest that if we want art of this greater kind in our lives, we need to look beyond the strong willed artists bellowing for attention, to the quiet creators who know they do not need it.

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One thought on “The one key secret of creating compelling characters”

  1. This creates an interesting bridge between two things that often said to be necessary for a good story – conflict and compelling characters. If what makes a compelling character is also the driver for conflict, as a strong will clearly is, then the two are inextricably intertwined, and it’s not wonder they both get mentioned so much.

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