Last week I had a few bad days. A conflict at work was niggling at me. Things weren’t going well with an editor. Work on my latest book was dragging. The stress turned into a giant migraine, making me cancel my classes for a day—something I detest doing.
I spent Thursday nursing my headache and feeling sorry for myself, saying dumb things like, Why is everything going wrong? Then I asked myself a question: Under these circumstances, what would Diane Lockhart do?
For those of you unfamiliar with the TV series The Good Wife, Diane Lockhart is the fictional head of a law firm. Developed by writers Michelle and Robert King, Leonard Dick, and Dee Johnson, and expertly played by the amazing Christine Baranski, Lockhart is the most dimensional, interesting, and commanding female figure on TV.
Diane Lockhart is not one of the pretty 20-somethings that animate America’s TV screens each night. She is not the young mother of a goofy family, or the girlfriend of a male lead. She is an older woman—Baranski is 62—yet she is not relegated to the role of irritating mother-in-law, cookie-baking grandma, or nosy neighbor lady. Unlike many older women on TV, she is not sexless, eccentric, or evil and, with her stunning wardrobe and impeccable taste, she is the diametric opposite of dowdy. She got married at some point in the series, but that was a minor plot line, and her husband has neither been seen on screen nor referred to for many episodes.
Most importantly, Diane Lockhart is powerful. Her power derives from intelligence, wisdom, experience, and confidence. She wants what is good for herself and good for her firm. She knows what is fair. She works from her strengths. She is neither bullying nor conniving, but she knows how to set up a good quid pro quo and can throw a mean metaphorical punch.
When I climbed out of bed on Thursday afternoon, took a couple ibuprofen, and asked myself WWDLD, I meant it. That poised, self-assured fictional woman wouldn’t be lying around grumbling. She would figure out her next step in the wink of an eye, and take action. If she could do that, so could I.
In this story lurks a lesson for writers. Because if you’re writing well, you can create characters that actually affect people’s lives. Good characters have strengths, flaws, bad habits, good habits, peccadillos and quirks. They seem so familiar and real that we feel their joy, fear, laughter and pain, and even grieve when they die (as many did when another Good Wife character was recently killed).
We learn from characters. We are inspired by their strengths and appalled by their mistakes. We recognize our own flaws and assets in theirs. We see their missteps and grow as they do. They can show us new ways of being in the world.
I’m not saying you should set out to create characters that will help people through hard times or teach life lessons. That's the last thing you should do. What you should set out to do is create characters with all the complexities and contradictions of real people. If you do it well, and your characters come to life on the page—or the TV screen—there’s no telling how they will affect your reader. Keep that awareness constantly in the back of your mind as you write. Devote yourself to imagining intricate, multifaceted, believable people. Then leave it up to your readers to find in that depth and complexity exactly what they need.