characters, fiction, writing

Curiosity Killed The Cat …

… but it saves the character.

I’ve been getting bored with doing nothing but research, research, research, and very little writing. So the other day, just for sheer fun, I started a story set in 1920s England – an adventure-fantasy: Dorothy L Sayers meets CS Lewis, so to speak.

Or at least, that was my intention. About 6,000 words in, I noticed a deadly flaw.

My heroine was boring.

She was the eldest of three sisters (I like writing fic where the eldest is the heroine – it goes against traditional convention so well). She was the responsible one against her sisters’ frivolity. She was plain compared to their beauty and charm. She was shy in society. She was ….


If my main character was putting even me to sleep, in a story that was supposed to be frothily fun, I had a problem.

So, like any sensible person, I took the matter to Facebook (and to Twitter, but nobody responded there – my FB friends are all much better, apparently, at answering writerly dilemmas), and got some helpful tips.

I mulled them all over, looked at their examples of good heroes/heroines who were responsible yet still interesting, and came up with a definite character trait to redeem this poor girl.


To get a feel for the era and tone, I’ve been re-reading the Lord Peter books (such terribly hard research, I know). Lord Peter is an amazingly complex character, but one trait that really makes him stand out from the crowd is his imagination and curiosity. Sayers describes his curiosity as all-emcompassing, the kind that drives him to find out where his drains lead to and unravel the emotional history of income-tax collectors.

My dad mentioned Brother Cadfael as another main character who is moral and responsible, but with an unquenchable curiosity that leads him, even as a monk, to poke his nose into everything that comes along.

Then I got thinking about others: Kate Talgarth, from the Cecy & Kate books, who might be something of a drip if it weren’t for her curiosity and wit. Jane Stuart, of Jane of Lantern Hill, who really starts to shine when she moves to PEI and is able to indulge her curiosity for life. Mrs Pollifax, by Dorothy Gilman, who joins the CIA as an elderly widow because she is bored, and whose interest in people gives her new zest for life. Pride & Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, who along with her sister Jane is the only responsible person in her entire family, including her parents, but who is also endlessly curious about people and life. Lucian, one of my favorite of Lloyd Alexander’s heroes, starts out his book by nearly losing his head due to an deadly combination of responsibility and curiosity.

I could continue, but I’ll spare you. I’m sure you’ve picked up the gist of it by now. Curiosity is both a virtue and a flaw for a character. Most human beings suffer from it to one degree or another.

I think I have a tendency, in order to keep my characters from becoming impossibly perfect and likable, to make them too drab. It’s also entirely possible that as I have always been fairly responsible, and hence always labeled “boring” (or the far worse “Goody-Two-Shoes”), that my own life experiences are bleeding into my writing. Let’s face, life as a stay-at-home mom to two littles brings with it plenty of need for responsibility, and not much outlet for being fun or exciting.

So this was a good reminder for me personally as well as authorially, that being responsible does not automatically equate being dull. A healthy dose of curiosity (with a sprinkling of wit and sense of fun) goes a long way toward combatting being boring.

What are some of your tricks to make a dull character start to shine? Are you a curious person? Do you think responsible is always the same as boring, in real life or in literature?

2 thoughts on “Curiosity Killed The Cat …”

  1. What might show as boring on the outside can always just the shell of someone with a great deal of inner turmoil, confusion, or just about anything.

  2. I don't think that responsible is the same as boring at all. I do think curiosity would be a great trait to add if your character is feeling dull to you, and curiosity can come out in different ways. I tend to throw my characters into situations that make them uncomfortable when I'm trying to see how they'll react or keep the story moving. And as Adrienne said, you never know what someone might be dealing with inwardly.

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