Saturday, September 22, 2007

Characters and Character Traits

Recently, a passing comment in a discussion about favorite characters triggered some big questions in my mind--questions I don't think I'd ever considered in all my years as a reader and a writer. Another writer in the discussion seemed to indicate that the same characteristics drew her to a character as drew her to real-life people.

I was surprised, not so much to hear that that was true as to realize that I'd never thought about whether or not it was true for me. I quick mental scan revealed the high probability that it was not.

The writer who made the comment blogs about conversations overheard; perhaps it makes sense that the line between character and real person would not be a very bright one in her mind. She has a real knack for spinning people into characters after hearing only brief conversations.

For me, though, I think the things that make a character interesting and compelling are often things I wouldn't in a million years want to encounter in real life. Popular fiction alone is replete with examples. In fact, I think that the very thing that makes what I think of as "throwaway fiction" so appealing is the taste it offers of a life we'd never live.
  • Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum is a walking disaster--and that's exactly what makes it possible to whip through the novels in which she stars in a couple of hours, with a recurrent smile. The sexual tension she maintains with two men, alternately or simultaneously depending upon the book, keeps things interesting. But in real life? She blunders into things she doesn't understand, keeps the people around her constantly worried, and lives her entire life on balanced on the praecipice of infidelity. NOT someone I'd want to hang out with.
  • Robert Parker's Hawk is one of my all-time favorite characters in popular fiction. The contrast between his erudite literary tastes and his unfortunate choice of profession (hired killer) is compelling on paper--and to the string of educated professional women his character dates--but in real life? Hello...he KILLS people? A bit of a stumbling block, anyone?
  • My daughter is quite intrigued by the character of Bellatrix LeStrange in the Harry Potter series. Bellatrix is, outside the primary villain in the series, perhaps the closest thing to pure, unconflicted evil presented in all of those 3,000+ pages. She has a certain attitude, a certain voice, that's a bit entertaining in that "love to hate" way...but one that would certainly (I hope) inspire disdain in real life.
The same is true, in less blatant fashion, in more literary fiction. One example that springs to mind is the character of Ole, the old man, in Ernest Hemingway's short story, "The Killers". Ole, when advised by teenage Nick Adams, that men have come to town to kill him, he simply rolls toward the wall. There's little to admire either in his implied past or in his resignation, but his few simple actions speak volumes.

Often, in fact, it's the things that are most reprehensible about a character, or saddest, or most lacking, or that the character himself is unable to see or to learn, that allow us to learn the most from him. Piet Hanema, in Updike's Couples, provides an excellent illustration.

Granted, these aren't necessarily the things that make a character likable, but they are often the things that make a character memorable, interesting, educational or critical to plot.

From a writer's perspective, that means that the characters we design to be heroes aren't necessarily going to be the ones who hold a reader's attention, or that it might be the flaws and dichotomies as much as the admirable traits that make a character memorable. Is that important to keep in mind? I'm not sure. I've been writing for more than 30 years, and the whole question came as something of a shock to me--but in retrospect, I find that hasn't affected my character development or kept me from creating characters who might not be the people I'd want living next door or working in my office.

1 comment:

stanaxe said...

More often than not minor characters bring out sides of the leading players that we wouldnt otherwise see, it is the diversity of those players that brings out the depth in stories; in my opinion.