Creating complex characters: Bo in Exquisite

Creating complex characters: Bo in Exquisite

This A-Z of characters blog series is looking at memorable narrators in novels and what has made them stick in my mind. It’s all based on the three Cs of character that I teach in our online courses and at various events and writing festivals. The novel characters that people never forget are complex, contradictory and consistent, just like real people.

In the first of these blogs I looked at Adam in The Imposter from Damon Galgut. Today’s complex character is Bo in Exquisite by Sarah Stovell, who visited the blog to chat to Sophie a while ago about this novel and her writing. Read the interview here.

So who is Bo?

Bo is a novelist, living the dream writer’s life in her beautiful Lake District home with multiple bestsellers in her backlist. She’s got a lovely family and a happy marriage. Bo shares the narration of this beautifully written and compelling novel with Alice, an aspiring writer that she meets when teaching at a writing retreat. The two women instantly feel a connection and an intense relationship quickly develops, with Bo playing the part of the older, wiser mentor who sees traces of her younger self in Alice.

What makes Bo such a complex character?

It’s the different sides of her personality that contradict each other; and that she’s so difficult to suss out. Is she nice or is she nasty? I’m not going to reveal the answer to that but instead look at her character traits.

On the one hand she is caring, nurturing, supportive and on the other she is manipulative, dishonest and ruthless. She’s a great mother to her children and a popular member of her local community. She’s playing games with people’s emotions and twisting the truth to suit her own ends. She’s altruistic and donates to charity. Like the image above, different elements of of her personality were reflected on the surface but at the same time all the other sides of her were still there behind that reflection.

It was really hard to tell who the real Bo is. And this is true of humans in general. We never know what’s going on in other people’s minds and they often do and say things that are in direct contradiction to beliefs they have previously professed to hold. But at the same time they are usually consistent in how they go about things.

As writers it’s our job to decide what goes on in people’s minds, to share that with readers and show how that makes them act the way they do. One of the things I’ve learned through reading and writing a lot of fiction is that it’s the contradictions and the moments of inconsistency that make novel narrators stand out, make them memorable.

Which literary characters have you never forgotten and why? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll pick someone at random to win a free place on our online course, the Creating Complex Characters masterclass, in which I look at the using the three Cs in detail to write your own memorable characters. The winner will be picked on 27th June 2018.

Writing exercise:

Write a list of 3 positive character traits and 3 negative ones. Then create a new character for a short story that embodies them. Think about why they have these traits and how they manifest in their behaviour.


Up next in the A-Z of complex characters is Cassie in As Far As You Can Go by Lesley Glaister…

23 thoughts on “Creating complex characters: Bo in Exquisite

  1. Jackie Buxton says:

    Great post!
    So, my pick is James, in the formidable, exquisitely written, Our Endless Numbered Days by Clare Fuller. James is eight year old Peggy’s father and he has some funny ideas about things. He also has an at best, unpredictable wife who appears to ‘take herself off’ without her family and with little explanation – at least as far as Peggy is concerned. James decides to take himself and Peggy away on their own adventure and thus their journey to a new life living in a cobbled together shack in the wilderness, surviving on what they can catch and grow, with the ever diminishing candle their own light source, and not a single other soul for company, begins. In many ways he is cruel and without giving anything away, commits great sins, but I was left wondering whether it was the madness which came from their new life all alone which caused his behaviour, or whether he was essentially a ‘bad’ man. He certainly showed Peggy great love and support at times, including teaching her to play the piano on a ‘keyboard’ he’d constructed himself from random bits of wood and parts of their shack. I read this book months ago and still remember James (and Peggy) vividly. That is the hallmark of a great character for me!

  2. Jeanette says:

    Beloved’s sister, from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, although I confess that I had to look up her name – Denver – as it’s been so long since I read it now – I did Beloved way back when in uni, and always thought it was much more Denver’s story than just Sethe’s. The image of being the child who was breastfed by a mother dripping with her sibling’s blood, and living in Beloved’s shadow – stained by Beloved – from that moment on is, for me, the real strength in this story – a tale of sibling rivalry, and that the rival is a ghost only makes the rivalry more intense. You know how you either love or hate the books you did at school? This one has haunted me (no pun intended) ever since I first read it back in about 2000. (Hamlet, studied at the same time, goes straight to the bottom of my favourite characters pile, along with everyone who starred alongside him.)

    • Amanda Saint says:

      Wow! I haven’t read Beloved but that description you just gave there has made me want to. I often find when I study books I can’t bear to read them again. I studied Wuthering Heights and never want to have anything to do with Cathy or Heathcliff again!

    • Abigail says:

      ‘Wow’ indeed, on my must-read list for decades. I better get to it. An extra ‘Wow!’ for how you got that across. Brilliantly put.

  3. Abigail says:

    Oh fab post. I’ve been thinking about this for nearly a day now.
    A character who doesn’t know who they are, but gradually inherits their fullness of self seems to grip me the most. A simple example would be Lyra Belacqua, the heroine of Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. She never loses her fiery, uncouth and utterly courageous self, but moves from child of circumstance, feral on the streets and rooftops, to woman of destiny, both a new Eve, with no stain of shame, and a Christ figure, sacrificing self to free the trapped souls of the dead. I love her sheer authenticity throughout, and the fierce graceful beauty of the young woman she becomes.
    On the other hand, a character who knows exactly who they are, and lives it shamelessly, is also compelling. Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair) might not share the reader’s insight into why she is selfish, ambitious, ruthless, but she does not hide from her nature, scheming her way out of an impoverished life. She is constantly contrasted with the ‘good’ Amelia, likable and kind, but I barely remember her. Thinking about Becky right now, I reckon she is a woman born in the wrong time; she’d do brilliantly in the Insta-world of today.
    P.S. that exercise is great. I came up with a new character, but also applied it to a couple of minor players in my WIP. I’ll be using this again.

  4. David Lloyd says:

    My memorable character is Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch .
    She moves from unhappy wife and passive victim to social reformer against a backdrop of huge social change in Victorian England.

  5. Wen Ross says:

    Emma Bovary from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is a character I just cannot forget. She’s not a pleasant character, but I find her so human and absolutely timeless. She is driven by so many of the deep-rooted insecurities which continue to drive human behavior today – the need to be liked/admired, fear of being forgotten/of being mediocre, a belief that self-worth and personal value can be enhanced through beauty, possessions and career…. I see her in so many different forms every day, especially on social media where there is so much pressure to curate our lives, and present ourselves as exceptional. I catch glimpses of her in my own behaviors too from time to time. A very compelling character!

  6. Charise de Becker says:

    Lily Owens in a The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. There is so much strength and richness to this character, I could clearly imagine her waving to me from across the street. Monk Kidd consistently creates strong, female characters who you can’t help identify with because they are flawed and vulnerable. When events happen in the characters’ lives it feels all the more powerful and even personal. Lily will always be in my psyche and one day I hope to create someone as colourful and courageous as her.

    • Amanda Saint says:

      I’ve not read this but sounds great! Sorry to say though, Charise, that the random number generator picked someone else to win the course. Thanks for commenting though and maybe next time!

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