Tag Archives: Scarlett O’Hara

Good Girl Gone Bad or Shades of Gray?

How good is your hero? How bad is your villain? Discussing character development recently with a group of writer friends, I expressed my dislike for protagonists who are too good and antagonists who are too evil. Main characters must have flaws; otherwise they could never surmount the serious challenges that pay off in transformative change.

Most writers get this, but there is a different kind of protagonist, embodied in film by Michael Corleone and, more recently, by Walter White. These are characters that start out virtuous and sympathetic but, as Walter’s series title sums it up, break bad. Michael Corleone was the good son in The Godfather. He was the one who enlisted and fought in the war. He was the one who Don Corleone wanted to keep out of the family business. Circumstances forced Michael to make a choice. He rationalized his killings by reasoning he was going to get the Corleone family out of organized crime. At one point, after deciding to go into the casino business in Las Vegas, he states that in ten years the Corleone family will be completely legitimate. It surprised nobody when that didn’t happen.

Similarly Walter White embarks on a life in the drug trade with the best intentions. Given a terminal cancer diagnosis, the high school chemistry teacher and soon to be dad starts cooking meth to leave a nest egg to his family. Walter fools himself into believing he can get out any time he wants. Not only can he not exit the drug culture, he makes a series of decisions that plunge him deeper into the world of corruption. When he commits murder for the first time, he rationalizes it by convincing himself the man he killed was going to murder his family. And that might have been the case, but soon he is killing for less clear reasons. He evolves from a character who is protecting his family from danger to a person who boasts, “I am the danger.”

A good example from literature is Scarlett O’Hara. At first blush, she comes off as a domineering, self centered harlot, but as the Civil War rages on and her family and community are in danger, she almost singlehandedly protects her loved ones from mortal danger, including her nemesis, Melanie Wilkes. In the end, I had mixed feelings about Scarlett. Was she a hero? She was a tragic figure, too blinded by her love for someone she couldn’t have that she failed to see how much Rhett Butler really loved her.

I like my heroes to have flaws, that is, to be human. And I like my villains to have redeeming qualities. In fact have you noticed a trend in films and television series of drawing heroes who are loaded with flaws and demons? Ultimately complexity in characterization is a good thing.



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What’s in a Name? Choose Character Names Carefully

Elmore Leonard once told a story about the difficulty he was having with one of his characters. He just couldn’t get the character right and it frustrated him. Then he realized what the problem was. The character had the wrong name. He thought hard about it and renamed the character and then the character came alive for him.

Character names matter and writers should consider carefully the names they give to their characters. A character’s name evokes an image in the mind of the reader. A character named Bruiser gives the reader a different picture than one named Bartholomew.  A character’s name must be consistent with her background and the time period in which the story takes place.

Here are some tips in coming up with strong character names:

  • Make it easy to pronounce. A character named Zbsyskrksi will stop the reader dead every time.
  • Avoid generic names. A character called Jack Jones is not memorable.
  • Choose a name that is appropriate to the occupation of persona of the character. Think Don “Vito” Corleone. A writer wouldn’t call a Mafia don Jacques LaFleur.
  • Select a name that was popular in the era in which the story takes place. Martha may have been a popular name a century ago, but it’s considered an old person’s name today.
  • Make sure the name aligns with the character’s looks and appearance. A fashion model named Crystal or Star works, but Mabel doesn’t cut it.
  • Avoid character’s with similar sounding names (example: Joel and Noel). It’s too confusing for the reader.

The most important aspect of a character’s name is that it must be memorable. Character names must evoke the intended emotional response. Scarlett O’Hara is strong-willed, petulant and manipulative. Harry Potter is an every-man name for an ordinary child with extraordinary powers. Severus Snape is an even better name, reflecting a complex man torn by conflicting emotions.

When it came to naming my main character in my novel, Small Change, I wanted an ethnic, blue-collar name. I chose John Sykowski. The family with whom they became intertwined was headed by a second-generation minister. I was going for an old-line English name. I selected Crandale. Two of my critics hated the name and urged me to change it. I thought carefully about doing that, but it felt right to me so I stuck with it. The author should listen to well-intentioned advice, but must trust her instincts.

Here are more resources on character names:






How do you come up with character names?



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What Makes a Main Character?

Readers remember compelling main characters. Who could forget Harry Potter? Scarlett O’Hara? Don Vito Corleone? Dorothy Gale? What is it about these characters that makes the reader care so much?

Writers have devoted books, essays and articles to character development in the novel. Without getting into a detailed summary, successful main characters are:

  • Memorable
  • Complex
  • Interesting
  • Possessed with the pursuit of a quest, goal or dream
  • Connected with the reader
  • Compelled or forced to grow and change

Note I didn’t include the term “likeable.” Scarlett O’Hara was not a likeable main character in Margaret Mitchell’s classic, Gone With the Wind. Sure, there were times when she was admirable. When she protected the pregnant Melanie Wilkes in Atlanta during the Civil War and when she single-handedly saved Tara, the family plantation, Scarlett showed commendable qualities. For the most part, though, she was a selfish, conniving, petulant, domineering fool.

The genius of Margaret Mitchell’s character is that as the reader wades through the 1,000-plus page novel, she finds herself rooting for Scarlett, in spite of her many flaws. The reader doesn’t have to like the main character; she must connect with the main character on some level.

A main character who is likeable, says all the right things, and goes through life without any worries makes for a book readers are not going to want to read. And it is one writers should avoid writing.

Can a main character work if he is likeable some of the time? Those can be some of the best characters. Take Don Corleone from Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather. People know Don Corleone from the Godfather movies, but one must read Puzo’s novel to understand and appreciate the character in all his dimensions. As Puzo’s novel explains, Corleone came to America during a time when Italians (and other ethnic Europeans) were the victims of discrimination. They could not find a job or provide for their families. They took care of each other, often living in crowded tenements. In order to provide for their families, some turned to organized crime. Even Don Corleone had his moral code. Gambling and prostitution, which he described as “harmless vices,” were okay, but he drew the line at pushing drugs.

The discussion about Don Corleone underscores perhaps the most important attribute of a main character: complexity. One-dimensional main characters are flat and boring. The reader quickly loses interest in them. Such characters are often found in novels in which character development is sacrificed in service of the plot. Complex characters have depth, conflicting emotions, and are not immune from the frailties and
weaknesses of the human condition. They are imperfect, like all of us.

Harry Potter might strike some as a one-dimensional character. He is a typical adolescent struggling to make his way in the sometimes cruel teen-age world. But he is different. He’s an orphan. He’s a wizard. Most importantly, he’s The Chosen One. He must bear the burden of defeating Lord Voldemort, while navigating the myriad challenges teen-agers face in the difficult transition to adulthood.

Like Harry Potter, Dorothy Gale is an orphan who was raised by her aunt and uncle, both stern Midwestern farmers. Dorothy dreamed of running away (a classic theme in literature) and she discovered the fabulous and scary world of Oz. What she was running from was the prospect of a dreary, isolated existence on a farm where there was little joy and no hope of a better life. Her epiphany was when she discovered the richness and depth of the love that her family and farming community had for her.

For a more detailed discussion of character types, Victoria Schmidt’s book, 45 Master Characters, is a good resource. Schmidt is a screenwriter who studied character development in movies and came up with the most common male and female archetypes. My only caveat here is that there is a reason they are archetypes: everybody uses them. You might consider drawing a character with the attributes of an archetype but with a twist, such as a star athlete who believes in romantic love.

What are the most important traits of a main character? Who are your favorite main characters in fiction and why?


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