What a character!
NaNoWriMo Week 2
warning: flashing gif at the end
Happy Friday! I spent six and a half hours on a plane from New York to San Diego last night, so I'm feeling a bit like scrambled egg. Is it noon? Is it breakfast time? Who’s to say! But last night as I was trying to fall asleep at the early/late hour of 11:30/1:30am, my thoughts turned to this newsletter, and to the idea of creating a memorable and compelling character.
My favorite books of all time are Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Peter Wimsey is introduced in Whose Body? as an erudite, wealthy, silly-on-the-surface man with a dark past. By the time the novel Strong Poison came around, Sayers was ready to throw in the towel and end the series, so she did what any sensible writer of golden-age detective fiction would have done: she introduced a love interest. Harriet Vane, the orphaned daughter of a country vicar, is in prison for a murder she didn’t commit, and Peter Wimsey decides to get her out. He’s fallen instantly in love with her, and it’s easy to see from their snappy chemistry on the page that Sayers would been well within her rights to end it there and walk away.
Instead, she didn’t. She couldn’t. The problem was, she told people later, that Peter Wimsey as he existed in Strong Poison didn’t deserve Harriet. He proposes on impulse, in their very first meeting, in a jail interview room with a warden literally watching their conversation. He asks because he assumes she’ll say yes, because (other than some nasty experiences on the Somme) things have historically worked out well for him. But Harriet has her own baggage—not just the lover that she is supposed to have murdered—and isn’t going to just say yes to the first guy who proposes to her in jail. (As it happens, Peter is the thirty-sixth.) Tt takes these two characters two more books to get together.
This is because Peter has to grow and change, and realize that for all his modern ideas about how to be a man he doesn’t really understand what it means to be a woman at this point in time (England in the 1930s) or the kinds of things that Harriet has had to struggle with in the wake of her lover’s murder and her subsequent acquittal. Harriet, for her part, has to decide if she’s ready to open herself to love again—and get over an inferiority complex about Peter’s fame, wealth, and social position that she is ashamed of having.
Gaudy Night is, perhaps, one of the greatest mystery novels of all time, and the mystery involved is almost mundane: someone is playing cruel pranks on the students and faculty of a women’s college in Oxford called Shrewsbury, and Harriet has been asked—in her capacity as a former student, and one who writes murders for a living—to come down and investigate. Peter eventually turns up, too, but before they nab the prankster responsible the novel is actually a marvelous set piece of character and conversation. Shrewsbury, the college, is populated by female dons from various walks of life, and much of the book is concerned not only with what it means to be a woman but what it means to have human purpose. Is it better to scrub floors or write novels? Is it better to remain staunchly alone, and therefore protect yourself, or is it possible to find a partner who would be your match in every way, and open yourself up?
To be compelling and memorable, a character has to grow and change; they start in one state in a book (or a series, if you’re ambitious) and, over the course of it, go from one state to another. The hobbits in The Lord of the Rings come back to the Shire having been profoundly changed by their experiences; Peter Wimsey doesn’t end in Busman’s Honeymoon as the same blithe amateur that he started in Whose Body?. When you’re putting together a story, don’t just think of external conflict—think of the rise and fall of character development, too. It’ll make for a better read for your readers.
It’s not spoilery to say that Peter and Harriet get together—they’re not one of the most beloved literary couples of all time for nothing— but if you’ve never read the Peter Wimsey books, I can’t recommend them highly enough. They’re a master class in character. The mysteries are good too, but believe me: by the time you get to the end of Gaudy Night? a single word in Latin will likely make you cry. You know, if you’re me.
This week’s NaNoWriMo worksheet is Jen & Becca’s Top 5 Tips for Writing Compelling Characters and can be accessed here. In case you missed it, last week we wrote out a similar list for crafting the plot of your NaNovel, which can be found here. Next week: the dreaded middle!
Keep an eye on my instagram account for the announcement of our next NaNo Instagram live!
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This week I’m traveling, so no This Week In Hockey or Links, but be sure to check back next week - I’ve got some doozies I’ve been saving to share!
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