The Human Condition:

Do You Like Your Characters? – March 9, 2014

Puppet Master

When I was working on my novel of time travel, The Children of Possibility, one of my beta readers objected to the main character, Merola Tsverin. This reader found her unattractive, cold and manipulative, and couldn’t find enough of interest in her to care about the character or what happened to her.

I agree that Merola is coldly manipulative, even dangerous, because of her circumstances. She is a woman from the far future, where manipulating genomes is as common as programming computer chips or amplifying radio waves in our own time. Although Merola is old in years and experience, her genetically modified body presents as that of a vulnerable, prepubescent girl. And when she loses her time ship and her main defense and ally against our barbaric 21st century, she is thrown back on her wits, living among people she has no reason to love and rules she need not respect. In this situation, she is something like the German spy Henry Faber in Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle: trapped on dangerous ground and fighting to get home.1

But my beta reader raises a serious question: Does a reader have to “like” a character and “care about” him or her in order to remain interested in the story? And does an author have to create “likable” characters with friendly dispositions, big hearts, positive motives, and sympathetic natures? Do all the people you meet in books and movies,2 other than the villains, have to be people you would want to spend time with, perhaps fall in love with, and maybe relate to as next-door neighbors?

First, let’s agree that there’s a lot of negative ground to cover here. Many characters in the hands of less-than-skilled writers are simply repulsive. Vicious and mindless behavior, lack of personal purpose and self-restraint, untreated psychopathy—all make for unpleasant characters. Worse, they’re boring and predictable. They’re dull when portrayed as villains, repulsive when portrayed in the story’s main role.

An author’s job is to show us the inside of the character’s mind through revealing dialogue and action. If we can understand why the character has to be cold and ruthless, we can begin to sympathize with his or her plight and motives. We might not want to hang around with that person in real life, or want to get in that person’s way as either obstacle or victim, but we can remain interested enough to see what happens next. With understanding can come admiration for the character’s intelligence, persistence, and resilience. And with admiration, in a reader who is broad-minded enough, can come a measure of liking.

An author also has to work to make the character appear and feel, from inside and out, “real.” By that I mean the representation on the page and in the role must offer the reader a mix of consistent—and sometimes inconsistent—clues, quirks, beliefs, and blind spots similar to the complexity that comprises a living human being. The character must offer stated intentions and hide areas of deceit and mystery, must display both caring and coldness, and suggest a depth of psyche, all of which are in the nature of real human beings. Characters cannot be saints, all knowing, perfectly resourceful, invincible in the face of death and destitution, people we can wholly admire and hope to emulate, offered as model citizens—except in comic books of the lesser sort.

My own preference is for characters who have quick wits, intelligence, insight, imagination, resources, experience, and resilience, blended with a sense of humor, sense of proportion and justice, and sense of personal honor. These people are usually just one dimension bigger than the situations in which they find themselves, confident that they can discover a path forward but not cocky about it. I naturally tend to make my characters more “doers” than “done to.” In some ways, this is a legacy of my early immersion in science fiction and fantasy: it’s a hopeful genre, full of people who have embarked on a quest, walking bravely into the future, or sailing out among the stars. But such characters also must be tempered with those blind spots and personal flaws, live with a bit of rue and regret, hold some measure of self-doubt, and have memories of roads not taken and loves lost. They must exist in a real world, which is a place of sadness as well as hope.

I try to grow my characters, like orchids, out of enveloping situations, fragments of their imagined pasts, and bits of dialogue. Before I can write them, they must become alive in my mind, begin speaking to me, telling me what they want to do, and warning me about the things they won’t be made to do.

An author has to respect the characters he or she builds and take care not to violate their natures. In the reader’s mind and active understanding, a character will have acquired from past actions and ascribed experiences certain traits, tendencies, likes and dislikes, and limitations that the reader or viewer will instinctively recognize and recall—even if he or she cannot name them aloud. An author cannot plausibly make characters do things against their natures just because the plot requires it. If that’s the temptation, then the author needs to rethink the character or rethink the plot. This is a mark of craftsmanship.

In that respect, I recently saw the DVD of Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine for the first time. The movie brought something into focus for me: Allen’s characters are too often caricatures, types created for their obvious strengths, weaknesses, and flaws. They may be smart, clever, and well-meaning, or foolish, bumbling, and small-spirited. But almost uniformly Allen’s characters are without real self-awareness and emotional depth—or not of the sort that Allen has obviously enjoyed through years of intensive psychotherapy. Allen’s writing gets inside their heads only to show what he thinks of them, but not to see how they think of themselves. They are foils for the purpose of telling his stories, not actual people. And he himself doesn’t care for his characters. If the author of a work is like a god to its universe, then Allen is a despising god. They are little people he pushes around with his plots to make a point.

To the extent that characters are “types”—readily identifiable by their opinions, enthusiasms, and actions—they cease to be complex, living human beings. To a certain extent, all fictional characters are types, because it is impossible to portray a real-time, 360-degree view of an actual person through the hundred thousand words or so of a novel or the hundred and twenty minutes of a screenplay. But still, the closer the novelist or playwright can come to this broad and unique view, the greater credibility the characters will have in a reader’s mind or to a viewer’s senses.

Of course, while an author must not despise his or her characters, they still have to engage in real conflicts and struggles, and usually at some point in the story they will suffer. Readers and viewers require that the stories to which they lend their minds be about something. That means the characters must make bets, strive to win their desires and dreams, risk and sometimes lose their stakes. Living is a gamble, and living sometimes hurts. But the careful author conceals his or her hand, like a subtle god. If the game is too obviously rigged, the plot workings too small and easily traced, the characters too easily snared by their own obvious faults, then the book or movie won’t satisfy the reader or viewer. And I’m saying Blue Jasmine and too many of Allen’s other recent works have this tintype, unrealistic nature.

Ultimately, through the treatment of his or her characters, the author is showing the kind of world he or she believes in or wishes would exist. Writing, like most other activities that come from the heart, is a test of the author’s own character. It exposes for all the world—or at least to the thinking and feeling reader—just who exactly you are.

1. I also admit that I am sometimes drawn to characters who are somewhat cold, practical, calculating, and a bit ruthless. They are able to suppress their surface emotions in order to pursue a deeper purpose. I find this skill or trait admirable. And I’m betting that fans of such diverse characters as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, Ian Fleming’s James Bond, and Marvel Comics’ Natalia Romanova, the “Black Widow,” feel that way, too.

2. Here and throughout, I consider short stories, novels, graphic novels, plays, and movies all branches of the same art: storytelling. Even though plays and movies are created by teams of professionals who set up locations, dress stages, create digital illusions, and act out roles wearing makeup and period clothing, the action still begins with a playwright or screenwriter who must create characters in the old-fashioned way, through dialogue, circumstances, and the character’s reaction to them.