The husband was once asked what he did when he wanted to write a character who was cleverer than he was. He did not bat an eyelid. He simply answered, “I ask my wife.”
I was impressed and touched by his reply, and I’m fearless in relating this little anecdote, because I think it makes both of us look good, but, there was intent behind the question.
I never wonder how it is possible to write one character or another. It never crosses my mind that I need to write convincing men, or gay characters, or kids or old people. On the other hand, I’ve often been unconvinced by characters in stories. So, what’s the problem?
The simple answer is that I don’t know. The simple answer is that, for me at least, a story is invariably about the characters, and, that being the case, I’m unlikely to build a character that I don’t believe in, and, if I believe in the people I’m writing, there’s a good chance that the reader will too.
I don’t think I’ve ever written a character as a cipher. I just feel that would be weird. I don’t think I’d insert a female character into a story to balance the numbers of men, either. What would be the point? Not only would I not have an incidental character based on race/creed/political persuasion/handicap for the sake of being politically correct, which might be the worst reason of all, I wouldn’t choose to have an incidental character, full stop. Why would I make life and writing more difficult for myself than it needs to be, and, as a consequence, less rewarding for the reader? Why would I muddy the waters?
I think there are ways of doing the thing. If the character simply isn’t present in the text, he or she can’t be found out as a stereotype. Readers who like a story are unlikely to say, “Oh, but you never write about seventy year old men”, or “Why have you never put an accountant in one of your stories?” They’ll fall in love with the characters that are there, not wonder about what is missing, unless, of course, something really is missing.
Hands up anyone who knows who did it in every episode of “Midsommer Murder” because it’s the most famous actor on-screen. Hands up anyone who knows who did it in every episode of almost any American cop-show, because it’s always the random relative, who has no apparent reason for being in the thing in the first place?
See what I mean?