Saturday, December 11, 2010

Enigmatic Characters

Adrienne--Gustave Van De Woestyne--1881-1947As writers, we spend a lot of time getting to know our characters and developing them. We learn how they’d react in different situations. We know people who remind us of our characters. We want to get to the point where we know instinctively how the character would respond to conflict.

But how much of this information do we actually need to share with our readers?

At the start of every school year, the parents at my children’s schools are requested to send a letter to their child’s teacher, telling about their child in a way that would help the teacher get some insights into working with him.

My middle school son’s letter is in a Word file. I sent almost exactly the same letter to his 8th grade teachers that I sent to his first grade teacher. I tweak it a little bit each year and send it off. He’s industrious, cheerful, smart, funny, popular. He tells me everything that’s on his mind (I don’t know how much longer that could last, since he’s now a teen.) Basically, he’s an open book.

I also have a letter for my daughter’s teacher in Word. Every year I open it up and squint at it—looking for ideas from the previous year. I spend a lot of time on my daughter’s letter each year, but most of the time I end up with, “She’s a mass of contradictions. She’s artistic and complex. I love her, but don’t understand what makes her tick. If you get any insights, please let me know!”

I think we need open book characters, such as my son. But then I think that enigmatic characters—inscrutable characters that the reader can’t quite figure out—can be entertaining, too. As a reader, I’ve enjoyed tons of characters who weren’t easily figured-out. Many times, they kept their thoughts to themselves.

I think that there still would need to be some consistency there, so the character wouldn’t be too frustrating for the reader. When I read inconsistent characters, I just wonder if the author even had a handle on the character.

Clues along the way are important. Clues to what motivates them, what makes particular conflicts difficult for them. I think the readers need to feel like they’re making progress in learning what makes them tick. It’s nice if there are small insights (rewards) for the reader to discover all along the way.

I think the majority of enigmatic characters that I’ve read have been secondary, or supporting characters. Writing an enigmatic protagonist would be a special challenge.

In your writing, do you have any characters who are difficult to figure out or understand? As a reader, do you enjoy reading enigmatic characters?