Thursday, June 3, 2010

Lemonade From Lemons

Over the Memorial Day holiday, my husband and I had big plans. We were going to escape to the beach, go crabbing, and have a big old time. Well, as happens when you have big plans, things went awry.

We got to the beach all right. Got the boat into the water and got the crab pots filled with old, stinky bait. But when we loaded up the boat and tried to start the motor…nothing. Not a sound. The battery was okay. Plenty of gas. The jackplate worked to lift the motor up and down, but all the rest of the electrical systems were dead.

What to do?

Well, as it happens, our tiny place is located on Nelson Bay where, except for a very deep channel in the center, the water only comes up to your chest. So, after considering this for about two minutes, we shrugged and sloshed through the water and carried the crab pots out about a 100 yards from the dock. No problem.

And by the next day, we had enough crabs to get together with our neighbors and have a fantastic cookout.

This got me thinking about characters and characterization, or more specifically, what make a character sympathetic. Creating likeable and sympathetic characters is one of the most difficult tasks a writer tackles. It’s a skill I constantly have to work at, because I’m often more interested in the prickly characters that most people don’t like. Perhaps because in “real life,” I’m drawn to those same kinds of people: the ones who appear grumpy, rude and disagreeably honest. For example, the teachers everyone else hated in school because they actually had expectations and made you put in the effort to learn something. When you earned an A from one of them, you'd accomplished something!

Unfortunately, it's not easy to make grumpy characters appealing…but as I thought about our weekend and how it turned out, I realized that the ability to keep on trying in the face of all discouragement, hardship, and bad luck is an important element. The strength of character and fortitude to go on in the face of adversity is what makes our heroes and heroines worthy of those titles. Ultimately, it is also what makes the reader love them.

This is not to say that my husband and I did anything heroic this weekend when we figured out a way around our own minor setbacks. However, it did spark that small flicker of understanding that the ability to make lemonade out of lemons is a critical trait for our characters. It’s what will ultimately allow them to triumph.

So if you’re writing about characters who leave a lot to be desired on the kindness front, it might serve you well to give that character a setback or a problem to solve in the first chapter. Not the huge problem they are going to have to tackle to make it to the happy ending, but a small thing. It is how that character reacts to a setback that will reveal if they have The Right Stuff, or not. If the character shrugs and gives up, the reader will too, because who wants to read about someone who gives up at the first sign of trouble?

Oddly, enough, it’s that same trait—or what my Mom used to call, “stick-to-it-tive-ness”—that makes each and every one of us the hero or heroine of our own real life stories.

It is also one of the fundamental traits of the men and women we honor on Memorial day. The heroes and heroines in our armed forces never give up—even if they ultimately sacrifice their lives to preserve freedom for the rest of us. I’m grateful to them and proud to live in a country that remembers our heroes.

Thank you!


Mona Risk said...

What a fantastic post, Amy. You nailed my problem here. I have a character who had lost a lot--my CPs must be chuckling here--more than anyone can possibly lose and I need to keep him strong and generous. Thanks for the great advice. I will have him make lemonade out of lemons.

Sheila Tenold said...


Thanks for terrific post!
My problem rests with my current heroine being viewed sympathetically. I need to show her being morally good, since she's forced into a situation one might label morally questionable. I love the idea of posing an early, small problem and having her solve it in a positive and honest way. Your suggestion is an excellent solution for me.


Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Your point is well taken. I had the blackest of black come into my life and discovered I was a lot stronger than I realized. I think facing problems and dealing with them the best you can, never giving up and being positive can get you through any ordeal. Friends, of course, are the glue that keeps you together.

I've been told to put these traits into my characters and use what I learned to move them along. I try to keep the gutsy heroine who takes on the world like a trooper. I want my reader to be cheering her on and taking satisfaction that she overcame and succeeded in something she thought impossible.

Ingenuity helps, too. I am thinking you did good with the crabbing...go you!

Anonymous said...

Amy, wonderful post. Making characters sympathetic but still needing to grow is a tightrope act for the writer. But when we get it right, it's magic.

morgan wyatt said...

Hi Amy,
Great blog. Just think you and your husband could have sat in your boat and griped about the unfairness of life, but you didn't. :)

I happen to like crochety characters whose crankiness hides a heart of gold.

Thanks for honoring our armed forces.

Joanne said...

Hi Amy,
If at first you don't succeed...
We all know the end of this famous quote. Good for you for sticking with it.