Do You Judge Your Characters?

judge“What a jerk!”—My one-second assessment of the person who cut me off, and then tried to make me miss the light by deliberately slowing down as we arrived at the left turning lane to ensure his being the only one to go through the light.

I’m guessing you might have a similar reaction to mine. Why? Because you’re only hearing one side of the story: mine. I provided only the facts that put this person in a bad light, because I want you to think badly of him, since he made me angry. But I don’t know this guy. I only know what he seemed to do. So, I think you and I would agree that I’ve labeled this person as the “villain” of my story without much evidence to go on.

I can’t help linking this incident to some thoughts I’ve had about a character. Years ago I wrote a novel about a prince who kidnaps my main character, thanks to the help of his twitchy minion, and tries to force her to marry him. I didn’t give any thought to the prince’s story beyond his immediate actions. He was a stock character—the “bad guy.” I didn’t make the effort to know him below the surface. He was the antagonist. What else was there to know? He came to a bad end, because he “deserved” it. Why? Because he was “bad.” But what factors contributed to his turning to the dark side? Unfortunately, I have no idea.

I sometimes hear authors say they hate a particular character—usually a villainous one—in their novel. I wonder why. And no, I’m not naïve. Some characters do reprehensible things. An author can make a convincing argument for why a reader should dislike a character. But is bad behavior the only thing for which that character is known? And are you telling me to think this way, because you judge the character based on his or her behavior, or are you showing me why I might form a specific conclusion? If you’ve shown this character in a convincing way, I can decide for myself. Do you trust me enough as a reader to do that? Do you trust yourself to be that convincing? If so, then you’re one up on me. With the prince story, I didn’t trust myself or the reader enough to do the work of fully developing the prince.

You might say, “Some things are black and white. I’m writing a story about ultimate evil. How can I help painting a character in one light or another?” That’s a fair question. I’m not arguing absolutes here. I’m asking you what you think about your character. Is your first thought, Man, I hate him? Why? Does that mean you love only the “good” characters? And by “good,” does that mean these characters are faultless? More than likely, they aren’t, are they? If your “good” characters have layers, do the ones considered “bad” have them too?

207546In Paradise Lost by John Milton, Satan, who set the pattern for many a dark lord, is portrayed as complex. Now, before anyone emails me in horror for making that assessment, please understand that I’m talking about Milton’s epic work here. Also, admitting that a character is complex isn’t the same as saying that character’s behavior is admirable and worth emulating. If you read C. S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost, you know that’s his opinion as well. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are C. S. Lewis’s words: “It remains, of course, true that Satan is the best drawn of Milton’s characters” (100). Lewis goes on to say this:

It is therefore right to say that Milton has put much of himself into Satan: but it is unwarrantable to conclude that he was pleased with that part of himself or expected us to be pleased. (101)

Does that mean Milton was saying, “Man, I hate this character, because I hate myself, and you should too?” Well, I can’t speak for Milton in that regard. I would suggest you read Paradise Lost and Lewis’s book and discern for yourself.

I could have followed Milton’s example by giving my prince a rich interior life. Instead I spared myself the effort. That novel, by the way, was the poorer for it.

Have you ever judged one of your own characters? Why or why not? Do you think antagonists need layers? Why or why not? Is a stock character good enough for a villain? Why or why not? Who are you favorite antagonists? Why?

Lewis, C. S. A Preface to Paradise Lost: Being the Ballard Matthews Lectures Delivered at University College, North Wales, 1941 (revised and enlarged). London: Oxford University Press, 1942, 1961. Print.

Judge image from A Preface to Paradise Lost cover from Goodreads.

A Writer’s Process (2b)


We’re back for round 2 of the writer’s process discussion with the marvelous Miriam McNamara. And thanks to Dreamland’s Insurgents, you can hum along to the suggested theme music here. Meanwhile, I’m really wishing I had a bagel right about now.

For those of you just tuning in, this is part two of the discussion, so you might want to refer back to part 1 if you haven’t already done so. You’ll find Miriam’s bio there. And as a reminder, Miriam’s young adult novel is The Unbinding of Mary Reade. Thanks to all of you for your comments. They really mean a lot. Now, on with the discussion.

El Space: Tell us about your main character. How is she like you? Different from you?
Miriam: Mary is raised as a boy—her dead half-brother Mark—in order to scam money out of Mark’s relatively wealthy grandmother. This deception keeps them out of utter poverty, so their lives really depend on Mary pretending to be someone she isn’t from the time she is very young. This shapes her character in a profound way. She yearns to be like other girls, but her upbringing ensures that she is like no one at all.


She’s not a boy, but she’s not a proper girl either. Her desire for the neighbor boy, and eventually for Anne Bonny, push her to explore different identities throughout the novel as she tries to figure out who she is.

I gave Mary my own confusion about who I was when I was a teenager. I also spent many years as a young adult trying on different identities/presentations in my quest to figure out who I was. I’ve also given her the strength of my desire and my imagination; the way she fantasizes and desires authentic love and belonging comes straight from my own heart. And I’ve given her a fluid sexuality like mine; she is attracted to boys and girls. But she’s very different from me, too.

I based some elements of her character on boys and girls I know that struggled even more with gender identity than I have. Her childhood was radically restricted by having to pretend to be a different gender than she knew she was inside, similar to the experience of some transgender and genderqueer people. She falls a lot closer to “boyish” on the gender spectrum than the average eighteenth-century girl, but she still identifies as female—the sex she was born with. She isn’t transgender, but she does fall somewhere that isn’t easily categorized. I love that complexity.

El Space: And the more complex the character, the more compelling the story. Intriguing, Miriam! Okay, we all know about the success of Pirates of the Caribbean. How did the success of this series affect the way you approached your story? Was it more or less difficult to write because of characters like Elizabeth Swann (played by Kiera Knightley) and Captain Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp)? Why?
Miriam: You know, the pirate captain in my story is the very pirate that the character Jack Sparrow is based on. Isn’t that insane?


His name is Jack as well, and I’ve had people tell me that I need to change his name, and make him less flamboyant. But those are two things I just can’t change—that’s who the real Jack Rackham was! I didn’t base my character on the movie character at all—so in my head, at least, Jack Rackham is a very different person than Jack Sparrow.


El Space: Johnny Depp showed such complexity in his performance. He definitely marked this character as his own. How did you shape Jack’s character in your novel?
Miriam: In the first scene that Jack appears in my novel, he makes a very flamboyant entrance—but as the novel progresses, he becomes more and more intricate and human, while I think Jack Sparrow remains that flamboyant, fantastical character throughout the movie series. My story is not fantasy, which POC and most well-known pirate characters are.

El Space: Your Jack sounds colorful and alive in the way of great characters in great fiction. Awesome! To wrap up, any advice for someone about to use a well-known trope in a story?
Miriam: There are reasons that we are attracted to tropes and use them in our stories over and over again. Strong desire and powerful conflict are embedded automatically. For me, I was attracted to pirates in general, and Mary and Anne in particular, but the initial reasons were shallow. Romance! Adventure! I didn’t know what I really wanted to say. But as I started exploring these characters and their world, I realized this story communicated important ideas that I hadn’t read before.

Mary ended up being a unique character that helped me explore my own thoughts on issues that matter a lot to me. I guess that’s the challenge: taking a trope—a ready-made, flat character—and making it into something that can surprise people and make them question the stereotypes they have. If you, the writer, can look beyond the trope and find a unique character, you can force your readers to look more closely at their own assumptions about the world.

Sadly, we’ve come to the end, as all good things do. Thanks again, Miriam, for sharing your process. This has been great! Give it up for Miriam, everyone! If you have questions or comments for Miriam about her process, please comment below.


From LOL Cats

Photo of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow is from Mary Reade image from Calico Jack image from For more information on Mary Reade, click here and here.