Misunderstanding character concept

Isn’t it spectacularly annoying when you read a book for the first time that delivers the original concept behind your own novel so brilliantly that you are unsure if you can possibly match it?

I experienced this emotion this week after reading Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘My cousin Rachel. The image she builds up of a character only seen through other people’s eyes is fascinating, providing the reader with a conclusion of Rachel that is, at best, questionable . You never quite know what it is this alluring woman has actually done or what she is fully responsible for. That is exactly the impression that I would like to leave reader’s with about my own protagonist, Madeline.

I suppose it proves that the best way to learn about the craft of writing comes not just with practice, but also from the study of other’s efforts through the act of reading. I feel as though I have learned a lot in the last month, and the majority of it has resulted from the vast amount of reading I have managed of late: a four-book series for Young Adults (The Books of Pellinor), Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall, and, this week, Daphne Du Maurier’s work:’ My cousin Rachel’.

While a part of me is slightly peeved at the inconvenient truth that the concept of writing a character from the perspective of other characters has been so deftly successful in other author’s hands, it’s also comforting to know that it can be done so well: it gives me something to aim for. Having read a novel whereby, in the end, I felt confusion over the title character’s ultimate ambition it has proven to me that such a dissatisfactory conclusion could provide a suitable end for a story. While I would love to know what Du Maurier believed her own creation to have been capable of, the mystery of it intrigues me more than having the answer would do: this is what I want my readers to feel about Madeline. I want her to be the enigma that the whole novel hangs upon, so that revealing her for who she truly is would damage the integrity not just of the story itself, but also of the reader’s experience of it.

I will keep Du Maurier’s book out, so that I might re-read it between edits of the current novel and try and capture some of her techniques via literary osmosis. It’s exciting to have such a wonderful example of that which I am attempting, not to copy, but to emulate. It spurs me on and reignites my excitement about my own creation, who hopefully shall be as misunderstood as cousin Rachel might be.

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7 responses to “Misunderstanding character concept

  1. While a part of me is slightly peeved at the inconvenient truth that the concept of writing a character from the perspective of other characters has been so deftly successful in other author’s hands, it’s also comforting to know that it can be done so well: it gives me something to aim for.

    I am fully behind this. Du Maurier is a really skilled writer, and striving to be anything like her is a worthy pursuit in my eyes. Also, I think it’s a fantastic idea to write this kind of character. I just read Jill by Philip Larkin and I was really disappointed by the character arc of Jill. He seems to build up something magical and wonderful, then just tears it down without taking it anywhere interesting. Very frustrating.

    • Thanks for commenting Sarah.
      I’m intrigued now about Larkin’s character of Jill, so might have to track that down for a read and see if I can relate to your frustrations. Sometimes it’s good to find examples of how ‘not to’ do something so that you can try and avoid similar pitfalls!
      Take Care, Cat

      • This is very true, and it’s a quick read! There was so much I liked about the book, and I think teenage!me would have adored it. But now that I’m older and a more critical reader, I found myself picking on things that wouldn’t have bothered me then. It’s an interesting one.

  2. Oooh: not sure I could ever defile a book like that, even if it is an old one! lol! To be fair, I didn’t really admire Du Maurier before, as I couldn’t get into Rebecca, but I guess that’s why you can’t judge an author by only one book!
    Thanks for the encouragement though, it’s great getting comments from you as you always make me feel like we’re on the journey together. And, if I can do it – so can you!
    Take care, Cat

    • “I didn’t really admire Du Maurier before, as I couldn’t get into Rebecca.”

      Oooh! That hits me right in the heart! Rebecca is my favorite book! (But it does have a slow start.)

      I also loved the storytelling idea behind My Cousin Rachel, so I would be excited to read your book once you have finished.

      • Hehe – Having read My Cousin Rachel I have considered giving Rebecca another go: it seems fair! I might be a bit more patient this time around!
        Must get my motivation going on my novel…have shirked my writing aims over the weekend!
        Thanks for reading, Cat

  3. Yep. You are on the right track. Study the authors you admire. Here’s something I suggest– find another copy of this book, maybe an old one, and get a pen and highlighter and break down what she is doing by taking notes in the book itself. I did that with an author once and learned a lot. Also, don’t forget that this author has been doing this for years. She has a lot of experience. One step at a time, Cat! You can do it!

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