Monday, February 21, 2011

On character: A lesson from author Kate Atkinson

As I briefly mentioned before, I have a weird obsession with author Kate Atkinson. I first read one of her novels (Case Histories, a book that Stephen King called "the best mystery of the decade"), in a Contemporary British Literature class.

I remember being instantly drawn into the novel, sucked in so deeply and so irrevocably that I could not function until I finished the story. After Case Histories, I devoured her other mysteries surrounding the damaged yet lovable Jackson Brodie, One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News? There is a fourth Jackson Brodie novel out, Rose Early, Took My Dog, but I haven't read it yet. (Gasp!)

Having read three of Atkinson's novels, and a few of them twice, I have come to realize some things about what makes her novels great: character.

The characters in Case Histories and its sequels are rich and real. Their lives are portrayed with such startling intimacy that I am at once terrified and delighted. They are complex humans thrown into amazing circumstances.

As I continue my own creative writing endeavors, I'm trying to learn more about creating rich characters from Atkinson. Below is an excerpt from When Will There Be Good News?, which surrounds the sixteen-year-old Reggie.

What I love about this section of Atkinson's writing is how she manages to create character in such a short amount of time. I could read fifty pages of the average young adult novel and still not have as clear a picture as I get from this short excerpt:
"Have you had much experience with children, Reggie?" Dr. Hunter had asked at her so-called interview.
"Och, loads. Really. Loads and loads," Reggie replied, smiling and nodding encouragingly at Dr. Hunter, who didn't seem very good at the whole interviewing thing. "Loads, sweartogod."
The Hunters had a forty-inch HD television on which she watched Balamory DVDs with the baby, although he always fell asleep as soon as the theme tune began, snuggled into Reggie on the sofa like a little monkey. She was surprised Dr. Hunter let the baby watch television, but Dr. Hunter said, "Oh, heavens, why not? Now and again, what's the harm?" Reggie thought that there was nothing nicer than having a baby fall asleep on you, except perhaps a puppy or a kitten. She'd had a puppy once, but her brother threw it out the window. "I don't think he meant to," Mum said, but it wasn't exactly the kind of thing you did accidentally, and Mum knew that. And Reggie knew that Mum knew that. Mum used to say, "Billy may be trouble, but he's our trouble. Blood's thicker than water." It was a lot stickier too. The day the puppy went flying through the window was the second-worst day of Reggie's life so far. Hearing about Mum was the worst. Obviously.

From these paragraphs, we learn about the characters by dialogue and anecdote. For example, the way that Reggie says "Sweartogod" is unique, young and probably something she says when she's nervous. We learn from the things that Dr. Hunter and Reggie's Mum say that they are concerned with being good caregivers for their children, even when the situation is not cut-and-dry. We learn from the way that Reggie notices things about her family that she is observant and wise beyond her years.

What do you think about this section? Something I'm wondering about as I write this, is whether or not this particular skill can be adapted in my writing style, or if it is something that is entirely too literary or too character-based to be included in a young adult novel.



  1. I think it's a big downside to a lot of YA books that characters come across as cardboard cutout stereotypes.

    You should definitely include that style of character portrayal in your writing if that's what you want to do. I personally love to read well developed, well shown characters.

  2. I definitely hate the cardboard characters. I also hate it when I read a book and can't remember the main character's name the very next day. Thanks for the comments! :)

  3. One of my professors said I HAD to read her, but I haven't had the chance yet. It is great that other women out there like her as well. She must be great.

  4. Yes, she is! Thanks for visiting! :)

  5. I agree with you. Well-developed characters are important. A novel with a good plot but flat characters just isn't as enjoyable. Great post!