I've never gotten along particularly well with my characters. No matter how much I try to coax them into complexity, to elicit cautious sympathy or even love-hate, they refuse. They sit there stubbornly on the page, tongues hanging out of mouths, defying any form of literary prodding. I've done everything to get a different reaction from them.
In one of my darker moments, I caught myself yelling at my characters, threatening to dump my laptop into a bath full of water if they didn't shape up soon. I was so fed up once that I killed them all off, one by one, until nothing was left but a household of objects, sitting motionless and ageing.
It's not that my characters lack a motive or are short on anything interesting to do. No, instead they consistently fall into that black hole of literary missteps - stereotypes. Seeking sanity, I turned to Angie Abdou, guest author at the 2011 Whistler Readers and Writers Festival, for some emailed advice:
Piech: What, in your opinion, is the most essential ingredient to creating real characters that are believable, complex, flawed and authentic?
Piech: Out of all the characters you have created, who is your favourite?
Abdou: For some reason, Fly from The Bone Cage jumps into my head when I read this question. I've always liked him - probably because he's the most selfless of my characters. He cares about his friends. He's not solely motivated by his own selfish desires. Most of my characters tend to be a lot more ego-driven than he is.
Piech: Do you find there is a common trait to many of your characters?
Abdou: My characters are all looking for a way to find meaning in their lives. They're often at a crux where their identity is fluid. They tend to be somewhat isolated and have trouble making real connections, even with the important people in their lives - their identity and interactions have a performative quality to them.
Piech : How have the characters you have created for your stories changed over the last 10 years?
Abdou: You stumped me here. In some ways, my characters haven't changed all that much. I am interested (and have always been interested) in deeply flawed characters who often make bad decisions but hopefully readers root for them anyway, simply because they're human. My characters tend to be on the verge of transition - in Anything Boys Can Do that transition had to do with relationships, whereas in The Bone Cage and The Canterbury Trail the transition has to do with the looming responsibilities of adulthood. In that way, my approach to characterization hasn't changed. As to the way I go about creating those characters, I hope I'm getting better at it... And will continue to get better at it as I grow as a writer.