I am fortunate to be able to feature an interview with Linda Gillard, who so graciously puts up with my emails imploring her to tell me all about the backroom secrets of A Real Author. Linda is, of course, the award-winning U.K. romance novelist whose novel Star-Gazing is the loveliest book I’ve read in ages, and she has two others I loved as well: Emotional Geology, and A Lifetime Burning.
In spite of working feverishly on a new manuscript, Linda agreed to take some time to answer my latest questions. I’ve often been curious about characters with flaws. If the author recognizes an attitude as flawed, how does the author know how to be consistent about it? How can the author resist “fixing” the flaw? And how would the author like the reader to react to the flawed character? Here’s my interview with Linda (who will probably be writing an article soon about flawed fan-correspondents):
Flawed Characters: How Can Authors Stand Them?
RIB: Do you struggle with a desire to fix the flaws of your characters?
LG: No, not at all. In fact I consciously strive to develop flaws. I actually like flawed characters because I find them more interesting – heroes particularly. In any case I have to have flawed characters because my novels are character-driven, not plot-driven. My characters struggle with inner conflicts rather than external villains so plot complications arise out of the characters’ flaws and foibles. I think that makes a story more convincing and a more satisfying read.
RIB: How do you “relate” to the flaws so you can keep them consistent throughout the story?
LG: I don’t worry a lot about consistency. I pretty much allow my characters to dictate to me what they say and do! They’re in charge and I just hang on to their coat tails. My novels are so character-driven that if a protagonist behaved uncharacteristically, I’d just go with the flow. (I once read that the way to make a character really convincing was to have them behave out of character occasionally, as people do.)
I think consistency in your characters is less of a problem if you don’t have the demands of the plot driving the novel along. Inconsistency arises when a character has to do something out of character to make the story work. How often do you read a novel and think, “But she just wouldn’t have done that!”
RIB: Do you like your character even though you have filled him or her with flaws?
LG: Oh, yes, I love them! If I don’t love a character by the end of a book – even the less admirable ones – then I consider I’ve failed to fully realise that character. As a writer, you “love the sinner, not the sin” and I can grow fond of seriously flawed characters who behave in morally reprehensible ways.
I think this is partly because I was an actress for some years. As an actor you have to find a way of playing moral turpitude without descending into melodrama. You have to try to work out why a murderer would kill, why a thief would steal. You can’t just walk on stage and play two-dimensional evil. The portrait needs to be rounded out. So in fiction, I try to present the big picture. In EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY, I portray a womanising mountaineer who can’t cope with the mental and emotional demands of caring for his manic depressive partner. Infidelity is one of the ways he meets his own needs. As an author, I don’t approve, but I understand and find it very interesting! (In my opinion it’s not an author’s job to judge, but to evoke compassion and understanding.)
RIB: Do you ever find yourself not “knowing” that some characteristic will be distasteful to readers?
LG: Oh, yes! You can’t second-guess readers! But I find readers are more tolerant of characters’ behaviour than editors. I’ve often been asked to remove flaws to make characters more sympathetic. For example, one of my protagonists drinks when she’s pregnant. I was asked to change that because it made her appear unsympathetic. (I refused.)
I suppose it’s because my novels are fundamentally love stories that editors have wanted the characters to be attractive and wholly admirable, but one of the things that irks me is, higher standards of behaviour seem to be expected of female characters than male! There seems to be this assumption that a female character has to be a shining beacon of goodness to engage a reader’s sympathy. Certainly there are a lot of reviews on Amazon criticising books because the reader just didn’t like the female protagonist. But I think the first duty of a fictional character is to be fascinating, not virtuous. I know a lot of readers agree.
As a writer you tend to forget that readers want to spend time with people they like and admire. But for a reader the book is just a fling. For the author it’s a grande affaire and common sense doesn’t always prevail.
RIB: Do you ever think some behavior or attitude is a positive one but it turns out others (editors, readers) take it for a flaw? I’ve always been curious about that – especially when the character doesn’t get “fixed” at the end – is it because the author doesn’t even know it’s a bad thing?!!!
LG: I think I’ve often backed a character’s surprising behaviour/decision because it bespoke integrity or taking control of his or her own destiny. But editors and readers don’t seem to see things the same way. While I admired STAR GAZING’s blind Marianne for certain choices she made, readers have often emailed to say how irritated they are by her stubborn independence.
Similarly in EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY, Megan’s sexual precocity upsets her mother, Rose, and so relations remain pretty frosty between those two women. Any number of readers have suggested Rose isn’t a very good or loving mother because she holds this grudge. They’ve made it clear they would have preferred a nice warm mother-daughter reconciliation scene. My view is, for this to happen, Rose would have needed to be more of a doormat. (I also take the view that the frosty mother/daughter relationship is more true-to-life!)
I wrote a scene in EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY which involved the heroine taking the sexual initiative – behaving rather like a man. My hero enjoyed it, but one correspondent was appalled. She claimed women don’t behave like this. (How did she know?) But I didn’t consider Rose’s behaviour inappropriate. It was assertive.
As a 70s feminist, I’d thought what I’d written was an entertaining (and fully-clothed!) erotic scene of female sexual emancipation. But it would appear that when it comes to sexual pleasure, some readers still think nice girls lie back and think of England.
So in sum, the short answer is yes, I sometimes differ with readers and editors about what constitutes a flaw versus an admirable trait. I think some readers like to sit in judgment, but authors can’t afford to. We’d be writing tracts, not fiction.