I’ve had a request for an article on writing Brandon O’Connor of Victorian Mistress with particular focus on writing a character with low self-confidence. Part of the challenge of creating Bran was making him both believable in his own right and as a love interest for Lot who has confidence in abundance. At the risk of boasting he has turned out to be a fan favourite.
Research is important but it’s also important not to lose sight of approaching characters, as with people, as people not ‘conditions’. Bran’s lack of self-esteem, depression and anxiety come from things that have happened to him, bullying and abuse, rather than ‘these are the things I wish to depict because this book says X so I need to do Y’. Bran’s past affects his present making him less confident just as Lot’s past affects her presence making her full of rage. To clarify research and characterisation need to work together.
To stay on the subject of Lot for a moment she is another key component in Bran’s depiction. Victorian Mistress is written from Lot’s first-person/subjective perspective so everything the reader sees of Bran is filtered through her view of him so I had to ask myself: ‘What appeals to Lot about Bran?’ The simple answer is that Bran is a good man and whatever Bran’s opinion of himself the reader sees Lot’s version of him. It’s important to consider that a character’s self-view it won’t be the same as another character’s but then we’re presented with the problem of balance.
When I say balance I mean finding the place between the character’s self-image and the narrator’s view of them, unless they are the narrator. Whatever Lot’s view of Bran his behaviour still needs to make sense. By this I mean it doesn’t have to make sense to the reader in a way that the reader would do it themselves, but rather that it makes sense to Bran’s internal logic. We can write characters where the reader thinks ‘I don’t agree with what you’re doing but I see why you’re doing it’. If a character’s behaviour doesn’t make sense it feels forced and illogical which makes it difficult for them to appeal to the reader.
With this in mind I had to find a way to show Bran’s internal logic without having him explain it to Lot all the time. This isn’t invalid but it didn’t work for Bran as a character or his relationship with Lot and constant exposition can be frustrating for the reader. Nor did it work because Lot is a perceptive person, though not always right, having spent her life figuring out the angles it didn’t make sense if she couldn’t figure Bran out. The balance of Bran being able to say or do things and Lot understanding what he meant also helped build their relationship.
However, Lot saying ‘this is what he meant’ or ‘this is what he was thinking’ might not have worked on its own. Once again there’s the risk of too much exposition but there’s also the question of: ‘How did she know that?’ This is where showing comes in; his body language at the beginning makes him appear smaller than he is, he has trouble with eye contact, he blushes easily and in his speech he sometimes stammers when he’d worried about how what he says will be taken. These gestures are all relatable and show his lack of confidence rather than telling the reader. Telling has its place but showing how a character behaves can increase their appeal to the reader because when they do something the reader can begin to associate it with what is happening inside their head without the explanation.
In the case of Bran part of the story of Victorian Mistress was Lot discovering his past trauma. So I had to find ways of building in his backstory without slowing the pace of the story too much or using too much exposition as I have a word limit for each episode. One of the ways we can do this is by showing a character’s reactions to things and allowing readers to form an idea of why this might be. This can also be used to create empathy for a character, such as Bran’s tendency to try and make himself inconspicuous when presented with aggression because people can relate to this. So sometimes the most revealing things we can do in character creation are not the most conspicuous.
I suppose I should mention to that Bran’s behaviour doesn’t remain the same throughout the book as he gains confidence, particularly in his relationship with Lot. We can show this through gradually changing body language and dialogue, for example by the end of the story Bran will say things to Lot he wouldn’t have at the beginning. This doesn’t have to mean a character has recovered from their trauma or is ‘fixed’ as sometimes happens in fiction but rather that they’re more comfortable with a person or place which isn’t the same. This doesn’t mean all characters with low confidence have to have this arc either, it’s just one of many possible character arcs.
The most important part of giving a character appeal is to approach them as a character and base everything they do on who they are rather than because they have low confidence or trauma or anything else. The most appealing characters are often the ones that are the most alive on the page, whatever kind of life it is that they lead.