Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Tests of Character

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So I’ll start out agreeing with Lee again–if the main character is lame, there’s nothing that will really make up for it.  I tend to read, most of the time, for character, and as I’ve said before, a book where the characters are good and full and vivid is better for me than a book with a “good story” where the characters bore or annoy me.

Which, it occurs to me, puts two things ahead of story for me, both sense of place (when  I’m in some moods) and character (always).   Maybe this explains why  I really love some things a lot of people posting here thought were boring in school. 

I think it also explains why  I’m not fond of most contemporary literary fiction.  In some ways you’d think I’d love it, since it often takes place among the kind of people I grew up with and live with even now.  My problem, however, is that the characters in those things are either a) upper middle class people who aren’t on to themselves or b) other kinds of people the author doesn’t seem to understand at all.

Most writers of contemporary literary fiction that I’ve read–there are exceptions–don’t seem to me to understand people very well, and especially don’t seem to understand people like themselves.  I’ve found myself in the middle of novels by Ann  Beattie wanting to clutch the main character by the throat, drag her out into the real world, set her down in the middle of Waterbury or Bridgeport, and say, “there.  Take a look at what depressing really is.  Go work in a soup kitchen.”

Oh, and there’s a beautifully written but completely mindnumbing novel by Joan Didion who drives endlessly along the freeways around Los  Angeles–I’d like to drag her out for a trip to Watts where she doesn’t get to emote about it.

When  I think of the characters I have enjoyed reading about, though, they’ve come in a wide variety, and I don’t have to like all of them.  The most fun I’ve ever seen done with character in my life still comes in the first half of the original published edition of The Stand by Stephen King–watch it; when it got to the point where nobody in the business was going to say no to him, he had the book republished without the cuts made before the first edition came out, and I now find the thing damned near unreadable–

But there’s a good example of a story that would ordinarily bore me to distraction, but that I  finished only because the first half had so nailed my interest in the characters, that I had to find out what happened to thm even after the demon showed up. 

I have very little patience with demons, elves and space aliens. 

Of course, The Stand starts out to be a disaster novel about a worldwide pandemic, and I can do disaster novels until my eyes fall out.

Writing characters, though, is a different thing.  I tend to write people who interest me, not only as main characters, but as secondary ones.  And for the past twenty years or so, I’ve been very careful to make my main characters people–often men–I could not ever be.

But just as I once read for a sense of place, I now read, at least sometimes, to see what possibilities there are out there for what the next stage of my life could possibly look like. 

I’m driven to this at least in part because I really hate the way women in late middle age look and are on television and in the movies.   I’ve never had plastic surgery of any kind, and I never intend to.  It seems to me that a woman of fifty who is trying to look twenty five is sending a single message to the world, loud and clear:  that it’s not all right to be a woman of fifty.

What’s more, I’ve got even less use for the sort of woman who pursues sex after menopause as if it were some kind of Holy Grail.  I got into a loud of trouble on a forum I post on periodically because I said that a group of such women who’d written a book about their experiences–look!  I’m having loads of sex at sixty and it’s the best sex I’ve never had!–were, to put it bluntly, pathetic.

No,  I don’t have anything against older women having sex, or older women having sex with younger men, but there’s something about dedicating your life to it that just–I don’t know.  I don’t know the words I want here.

Part of it is the logic.  The only way the sex you have after sixty is the best you’ve ever had is because the sex you had before sixty was awful.  Neither biology nor evolution works that way.  No matter what we’ve made of sex emotionally and culturally, it is at bottom a biological mechanism for ensuring the continuation of the species.   It therefore makes sense that, if evolution is true, sex should be the most fun when we have the most chance of reproducing.

But there’s more to it than that.  The women who chase youth with plastic surgery or with younger men seem to me to lack some fundamental sense of self.  Hell, the men who do it seem to lack the same thing.  Hugh Hefner does not look enviable to me. He looks sort of creepy and pathetic, and very, very sad.

I guess I hope that getting older will mean getting wiser, and maybe it does, but there is precious little in the world that amounts to a vision of what that would look like in women.  So lately, I actively go looking for characters who embody it, the something I’m looking for that I’m not entire sure what it is.

I’ve even tried writing it on and off, but I’m not very good at it yet.  Maybe that’s because I don’t have it settled in my own mind.  Let’s just say that, constrained to watch an episode on Golden Girls, I prefer just about any of the other characters to Blanche.

I do wonder if I’m in the minority, though.  Most of the heroes and heroines of novels these days, and always, seem to be in their twenties and thirties, even though the most common readers of novels are older than that.   Maybe most people prefer to imagine themselves as younger than they are, or to escape from the realities of their own age, and I’m an anomaly on that score, too.

Written by janeh

June 2nd, 2009 at 10:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Tests of Character'

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  1. No one’s responding yet, so I’ll say something.

    I’m not sure what I’ll say. I first thought “I don’t try to learn things from fictional characters” but then I thought that there’s probably a reason I used to admire all those plucky fictional orphans when I was a child, and that I read so many books about people who aren’t like me at all (in ways other than being orphans, when I’m not, that is). I like interesting characters and sense of place, but I really like an interesting plot. Still, there are limits to my tolerance for less plausible characters; ones I couldn’t possibly use as examples of what I might become. I got about two pages into the book with the 17-year-old female who decided to hunt outlaws when her father wouldn’t let her run a ranch, even though she begged and argued about it.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about aging over the last few years. Mostly I think of older women I know or have known when I wonder what my old age might be like, should I reach it – both the ones I don’t want to be like, and the ones who seem to have it all together. I hadn’t thought about fictional women. You’re right, there aren’t a lot of fictional old women as major characters. Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters has often had some – in fact, in many of her books, there are four relatively major characters – a younger and a older couple. Bujold’s Cordelia and Aral aren’t young, even at the beginning. There’s a tradition in the cozy mystery of elderly Miss Marple types, but I don’t think I’d consider them exemplars of characterization, althought they can be lots of fun.

    That reminds me – I did read a cozy that appeared to be part of a series involving a group of female friends at or around menopause. I didn’t like it. They were going on and on about spas and relationships and stuff, and weren’t either people I’d like to be or anything like most of the rather large number of women in that age group I know in RL. Oh, the real ones might go to a spa once in a while, and certainly have relationships with other people, but there’s more meat to their personalities and lives.

    I don’t know how much people feel the need to identify with characters, younger or older. Some do. I did a lot when I was much younger. As I grew up, it became enough for there to be some aspect of the character I liked or could identify with or was intrigued by. I no longer needed to put myself mentally in the character’s shoes.


    2 Jun 09 at 4:50 pm

  2. Jane,

    I don’t get it.

    “I’ve found myself in the middle of novels by Ann Beattie wanting to clutch the main character by the throat, drag her out into the real world, set her down in the middle of Waterbury or Bridgeport, and say, “there. Take a look at what depressing really is. Go work in a soup kitchen.”

    Oh, and there’s a beautifully written but completely mindnumbing novel by Joan Didion who drives endlessly along the freeways around Los Angeles–I’d like to drag her out for a trip to Watts where she doesn’t get to emote about it.”

    Why read them if you don’t enjoy them? Two weeks ago, I took 3 books out of the library. I quit each of them after 20 pages and have now returned them to the library.


    2 Jun 09 at 5:42 pm

  3. I was about to agree entirely about the primacy of character, when it dawned on me that that I had just pruchased and was reading Elizabeth Peters’ latest Vickie Bliss novel, and I never found Vickie or her regular crew all that interesting as people–but they could be counted on to be in an interesting story.

    Refined hypothesis: characters range from so dull you don’t care what happens to a universe they inhabit–the collected works of Issac Asimov, for example–to Bujold’s Miles Vorkisigan at the other end. I’d read about that hyperactive, manipulative, driven genius shopping or buying dinner. In fact, I have. Mid-way between are what might be called situationally interesting characters–worth reading about at some great crisis in their lives. Bujold observed once that the first rule of fiction was to “think of the worst thing that could happen to your characters and then do it to them.” There’s some truth to that.

    To say the least, the story should be interesting enough that the characters don’t bear all the burden, and the characters must not be so dull as to drag down the plot. Most of the time, it’s interesting to see THESE characters in THIS situation.

    As for Heff & Co, and the women who for some strange reason take him seriously, they were never interesting. Bob Newhart got there first, and whenever I see Heffner or hear of him, I hear Lloyd Larchmont explaining the concept of the Lloyd Larchmont House: “A house which will have only two rules: First, that all the men shall spend their days in studying the teachings of Lloyd Larchmont; Second, that all the women will kick back ten percent to the house.”


    2 Jun 09 at 6:32 pm

  4. I read about characters in their 30s (the 20s has become too young unless they’re really mature for their age) because 1) that’s what’s available, and 2) I don’t feel inside much different now than I did back then (I’m 51), so it doesn’t feel like that big a stretch. However, I do really like it when I chance to come across a protagonist who’s somewhere around my age. Assuming the character is interesting & has interesting things to do. There aren’t a lot of them–Pratchett’s Commander Vimes, Nanny Ogg & Granny Weatherwax, Bujold’s Ista in Paladin of Souls, Aunt Kate in Peters’ Devil-May-Care (not the main character, but she steals the show whenever she’s present,) are the only ones I can think of offhand. And they’re mostly fantasy, so you might not like them anyway.

    We’re staying alive and healthy so long now, compared to previous generations, that maybe this is new ground for writers in general. In my grandparents day, someone my age would have been expected to be relatively settled, sedentary, & not likely to be thinking about anything but retiring. Certainly they shouldn’t be starting a new venture, or even setting off on an adventure. Generally books, especially those in series, like to begin with a new start–Gregor’s move to Cavanaugh Street, for example. Maybe those of us in middle age seem unlikely candidates for that new start–no matter how often it happens in real life.

    Lee B

    2 Jun 09 at 9:00 pm

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