Difficult Characters Navigating Difficult Relationships

When Elizabeth Strout discussed her new novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, on “Well Read,” she spoke of her “difficult characters navigating difficult relationships.” This struck a chord in me, going right to the heart of what I enjoy as a reader and writer of fiction.  I hope the idea interests enough of you to generate conversation around my virtual coffee table.

Much – perhaps most – of what I read involves disturbances the characters must deal with at least in part because of their natures. To name a few: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. They are filled with characters who make poor choices that hurt themselves and others. They do not always appear likable, but they struggle to make amends, choose better ways, and heal, finding this a most difficult enterprise. In these and other books, I have enjoyed being challenged to care about fallible characters whose struggles are with themselves as well as others.

In my first novel, Boundaries, a brilliant, remote lawyer’s inability to control a surprising new passion leads him into difficult relationships with his client, his office, and the legal community in a small, insular city that resents outsiders. My short stories gravitate in similar directions as if a magnet is pulling me. It is doing so now in the first draft of Third Floor, my second novel, which you might see serialized here at some point. In this story each of the four POV characters -mother, father, sister, brother – make life difficult for themselves and others in very troublesome ways . (Hint: it begins with the twins using deception to create a hideaway in an upstairs room to escape parental dysfunction.) Everyone in the family makes bad decisions that drive them apart. When circumstances make coming together paramount, they are faced with their greatest challenge.

What draws you into the stories that keep your attention whether as a reader or writer? What stories based upon seriously challenging behavior have drawn you in? What have you liked and not liked about the ways the authors dealt with this?



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