This morning I was reading the Sunday newspaper and various magazines that come with it, and found an article on sweet food. Everything from the cake shops Melbourne is famous for to city walks that take in gourmet food shops. Maybe it was because I'd just had breakfast but somehow the cupcakes and chocolate fountains looked very unappetising. Why would you eat a cupcake just for the super-thick icing? Why would you walk around the city just to eat yourself silly on chocolate or cream cakes? Before you throw something at me, I realise that most people wouldn't have a problem with either of those things!
Then I got to thinking about characters - one who couldn't stop eating cupcakes and chocolate, and one like me who couldn't be bothered. The big question is Why. If I was a fictional character, I could tell you (if it was part of the story) that I grew up on a farm, hence my aversion to cream. And that a long time ago, to earn extra money, I spent three weeks making hand-crafted chocolates and it took me five years before I could face chocolate again. Just the smell made me feel ill. And even now, chocolate and sweet stuff are not my things.
Why can't that other character stop eating chocolate and cupcakes? Is she compensating for something she's missing? Is she lonely? Is she addicted to sugar? (I know a couple of people like this.) If she was my character, I'd need to know all of that, and more. I'd want to know how she feels about the people who stare at her, how her mother treats her, if she's married. Was she a fat kid? (Been there.) As for my anti-sweets character - is she anorexic? Is she diabetic? Was she a fat kid? Was she Weight Watcher of the Year a while ago?
I confess I think about this stuff a lot, especially while watching TV. Nothing annoys me more than characters in TV shows who have no depth, who are just walking through the story like a cardboard cut-out. (OK, one thing annoys me more - my husband walking in halfway through a show and saying a character is stupid because he hasn't seen the set-up!!) British shows seem to do a great job of complex characters, ones with flaws and inner conflict. That's how we get more than just the plot - we get character arcs, and characters we empathise with.
At the moment, there is a new show on the ABC called Luther. He's been in trouble before the show starts, and things don't improve for him at all, but he is good at his job - police detective. He's the kind of guy who observes others very closely and can work them out, but can't work himself out. He's an uncomfortable character to watch, but you persevere in the hope he'll change and grow, just like you do with characters in a novel.
I also watched the last episode of The Bill (I haven't been a regular watcher, but it was the last). And marvelled at the way each character, in quite a large cast, was an individual. I had no idea of their names - it wasn't that important, really. It was more about how each one reacted to a horrific crime, and what they did next. It reminded me of another key element about characters - their need or lack. I often talk to students about "what your character really needs or wants" and forget about the other half of the equation - what is the lack inside your character? I'll return to my current work-in-progress with that question to answer.