Diane Chamberlain, one of my best friends as well as one of my favorite authors, is joining me for a chat on our blogs. To celebrate my new book, One Mountain Away, we decided to have a conversation about characters—specifically characters who might not be all that sympathetic, at least not at first blush. We started our chat on Diane’s blog and today we’ve moved it to mine. Look for more at Diane’s on Monday. I hope you’ll enjoy our give and take. If you have questions on the subject that you’d like us to address, ask away. We’ll be giving away copies of Sunset Bridge (mine) and Summer’s Child (Diane’s) to randomly selected commenters on each of our blogs. Good luck!
Emilie: Absolutely. Several come to mind, sociopaths, all of them, which are nearly, by definition, irredeemable, at least as we understand the
pathology. But sociopaths aren’t much fun–even though they predominate in the thriller genre–because many people think they’re born not made, and what “makes” a character act badly also makes him/her sympathetic.
In One Mountain Away we see a pivotal moment in Charlotte’s childhood played out in a flashback very early in the story–by the way I sat in “that” church a long time ago and watched “that” preacher swat flies and wasps with his Bible. Anyway. . . background does make a difference. But I also think in the examples of Annie (Keeper of the Light) and Noelle (The Midwife’s Confession), you found another interesting way to deal with unsympathetic characters. First, neither WAS unsympathetic until more of their story was revealed, and by then we cared about who they were and were willing to forgive them almost anything. In addition the books were filled with more sympathetic people who had been affected by them. Those are great examples of yet another way to bring the reader along with us as we explore flawed characters.
Now, in your own experience as a social worker, did you ever work with anybody who you knew would never change, no matter how much therapy he/she received? And does whatever you concluded show up in your novels? Did it affect your basic belief about good and evil, because your characters are always multi-dimensional, never completely good or bad, and I wonder if that’s a writer thing or a Diane thing?
Diane: What an interesting question, Emilie. Back when I was a therapist, we were trained to always be on the lookout for “personality disorders”, those afflictions that were so ingrained in a person they would be impossible to change. As a young therapist, I fought the limitations of that diagnosis. As a more seasoned therapist, I came to accept them. Some people cannot change who they innately are, but they can develop ways of coping with the personality traits that make it hard for them to get by in the world. So while I believe there are some personality traits that can’t be changed, I believe they can be creatively dealt with in the hands of a good therapist.
As for good and evil, you’re right. I think most people are a mix. That said, I have thrown a couple of sociopaths into my books: Ray in The Good Father and the scheming psychiatrist in Breaking the Silence. They serve a purpose, but I don’t think they’re nearly as interesting to read about as someone who grapples with the good and bad inside himself. That’s what makes Charlotte such a rich character. Examples from my own books are Tim in The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes and Savannah in The Good Father.
On another note, you have a character, Harmony Stoddard, in One Mountain Away who elicits instant sympathy. Do you have any tricks of the trade to share for making the reader care so quickly for someone?
Emilie: First, I think the author has to “believe” a character is sympathetic to make one read that way. And what’s sympathetic for me might not be for someone else. But if we don’t find a struggle important and understandable, the reader definitely won’t, either. Harmony is homeless and pregnant, homeless through a situation she couldn’t control and pregnant, despite her best intentions not to be. I think almost any woman can place herself in Harmony’s life and know what that must feel like. And maybe that’s the key? That all of us, author and readers, must be able to put ourselves in a character’s shoes to feel compassion. If the character’s battles are too distant from our own realities, they’re harder to understand and care about. The novelist must be able to illustrate the ways our own struggles are like that character’s, even if in other ways the character is very different from us.
Thanks for reading. . . Diane and I will be continuing our conversation on her blog on Monday. Be sure to watch for it there, and please leave a comment or ask a question for a chance to win our books.