Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Trouble with the Witness Character

This summer, while looking through my library for books on Melanie’s summer reading list, I came across this intriguing cover.

 Yes, it’s true. All you have to do is put a picture of a bird on something, and I’m so there.

Anyway, the plot is this: ordinary village girl Aggie is hired to be a companion to the ward of the owner of Murkmere. But mysterious Leah cares more for the company of swans than humans. As Aggie spends more time at the manor, she is drawn deeper into the secrets of her new mistress and Murkmere’s tragic history.

The book is very Gothic in tone: empty, forbidding manor; mysterious, injured guardian; flighty, wild daughter. But I didn’t really enjoy the novel, because the narrator of the book utterly frustrated me. Aggie was fearful, hesitant, superstitious, and almost completely lacking in personality. There was a token attempt at the end to give her a backstory, but to be honest, I don’t remember anything about it – though I remember Leah’s story quite clearly. In the end, it seemed like Aggie was a placeholder, a witness there so that the readers could go through these strange events.

After reading Murkmere, I came to realize that this is a fairly frequent situation in literature – and one that has always bothered me. I call them witness characters, but they’re often referred to as the “Everyman” character. The idea is that the reader thinks, if this ordinary character can do things, so can I. But they also risk being boring, empty slates. Some famous examples of Everyman characters are Arthur Dent from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dr. Watson from Sherlock Holmes (the original books), and Frodo (Everyhobbit?) from Lord of the Rings (and Bilbo, for that matter).

But it seems sometime that the attempt to make the character relatable can go too far. A frequent criticism of Bella in Twilight is that she is completely a blank slate, apparently in order to make it easier for readers to imagine themselves as her. I don’t think it has to be so extreme. Aggie from Murkmere is even more extreme in her own way. She is described, but she herself has so little stake in the story that she might as well not be there. Here are some questions I think it’s important to ask when building relatable characters.
What role does your character have? And what’s at stake?

One of the problems with Aggie in Murkmere is that she had very little at stake. Through most of the book, it seems like the worst she could do is lose her job. And… go back to live with her aunt. Who is apparently well off.  There are vague threats to her life and accusations of blasphemy, but though those troubled her greatly at first, the tension of that diminished rather quickly.

Take Frodo as a contrast. He’s not only putting his life at risk, he has the most important job in the Fellowship. And not only is his life at risk, but also his sanity (both his personal world and his physical world!)
What does ordinary mean?

Ordinary does not mean boring. Ordinary does not mean ineffective. In my view, all ordinary means is starting out powerless, and succeeding despite that. If you make your character too powerless, too frightened, you risk the reader getting frustrated. In my opinion, the idea is to produce an ordinary character that makes the reader want to be better. Do that right, and it can be very powerful.

Are you writing the right character?

Okay, so you’ve got this awesome idea for an eccentric character. This character is the one who takes up all your mind and pages and pages of notes. So… why is this person not your main character?

What would Murkmere have been like if it had been told from Leah’s perspective? Sure, there would be a couple of mysteries the author couldn’t have held over us, but imagine being in the head of a girl who can understand swans, whose loneliness and isolation might have resonated just fine with readers, even if they didn't want to live with swans. The witness character can be a powerful voice if handled right, but I think it's important for authors to go with the character who speaks most clearly to them.

That being said, Kait (the main character in my next novel, Swallowed the Moon), is pretty much an everyman (everywoman?). What do you do to keep your characters ordinary - and more?

1 comment:

  1. Great post!! And I agree with your definition of ordinary, and I do love stories that have the everyman-type characters but the vast majority of the time, the story really needs to be theirs and they definitely need higher stakes than getting fired. :)

    These are excellent questions to consider when choosing a MC.


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