Wednesday, June 8, 2011

On Character Development

I'm reading A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff; commercial fiction about a woman who owns a vintage clothing store in London. I was in the mood for something frothy, which this book promised, but as with many confections, it didn't quite satisfy.

The story contains several promising subplots. The protagonist struggles with guilt related to her best friend's death; she'd become engaged to a man with whom the friend was in love and the resulting heartache appears to have resulted in the woman's suicide. She later befriends an elderly woman who shared similar guilt from childhood, having told the son of an Italian gestapo member where her Jewish friend was hiding, thinking he would help.

Other details within the book are also promising: vintage clothing and the potential stories related to each piece; the unhealthy connection between a beau and his spoiled daughter; another beau's interest in classic, early films; the complexity of a father who goes off to have a child with another woman and the resulting trauma for the mother. All this seems like great fodder. The author had plenty to work with.

So given that the book presents challenging major themes and includes interesting details and relationship complexity, I've been trying to figure out how it ends up vapid.

I think the problem must be in the character development.

The protagonist feels guilt but that's all you really know about her other than her career choices. She appears to be "nice" in a vanilla pudding sort of way, befriending the old woman and being kind to her infant brother. But there is no real depth. She is smooth and bland, with nothing to like or dislike about her.

The other characters are similarly lacking in dimension, each presenting a single face throughout the book.

The most intriguing character is the secondary love interest. He's given very little airtime, which perhaps explains why he is intriguing. With him you are at least allowed to wonder and hope that there is more.

Two other characters who made brief appearances were also stronger than the lead players, perhaps again due to brevity.

So what am I to learn about character development from this book?

First the main character has to be complex and flawed. I've read this over and over again in articles about the craft, but this protagonist brought it home for me.

Second, there needs to be more going on within the heroine than just the primary conflict.

Third, secondary characters also need to be dimensional. I might be able to get away with one or two minor characters who are so colorful that demonstrating depth beneath the surface isn't necessary. They can be treated like artwork, or the squirt of lime that brightens the flavor of a cocktail. But for the major secondaries, even the colorful ones, dimension and complexity must be conveyed.

Fourth, saying less about a character may actually work toward their believability because the reader is drawn in by wondering what's behind the curtain. To make this work I'd probably need to build mystery.

I've not quite finished the book, but am very glad I selected it. Turns out it has been very instructive.

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