Thursday, 1 December 2011

On Characters - A Rant In Two Parts

Okay, I suspect this isn't going to be my most popular post ever, but what the heck. (Feel free to comment and tell me why I'm wrong...)

Rant #1
No surprise, but I read a lot of books - but also a lot about books. Reviews, articles, interviews, blogs - and one of the great things about the internet is the how democratic this has all become. Anyone can share their views on books, and we can all read it. But reading all this stuff about books as I do, I believe something needs to be said:

The primary goal of every piece of fiction is not to depict realistic characters. There, I've said it.

Of course, depicting realistic characters is an honourable and traditional goal of much fiction, and drama - Hamlet would be over in about five minutes if the prince was an impetuous, bloody thirsty type of guy, rather than the procrastinating worrywort he is.

But would the outcome of The Trial be that much different if Josef K had a different personality? Isn't part of the point that he is caught up in a bureaucratic process that depersonalises those in its clutches? I think so, and I think part of The Trial's power is that K. is depicted as an 'everyman' - if he was a 'someone' the focus of the story would shift. Not only is the main artistic aim of The Trial not to depict a realistic individual, but I think its real artistic aims would be compromised if it did.

And it's not alone; books as diverse as The Road, Sombrero Fallout, any Agatha Christie murder mystery, Molloy, House Of Leaves, Tristram Shandy, Sum: Tales of The Afterlife and Animal Farm seem to me to be ones whose primary aim isn't to depict character, and indeed ones where a 'fuller' attempt to do so would make the books worse, not better.

None of this should be controversial, or need saying by little ol' me, if it wasn't for the constant attempts by some people writing reviews, articles etc. to judge fiction only by the characterisation yardstick. And books like the above will inevitably come a cropper if they're judged in this way. Don't judge a book by its cover, and don't judge it by its failure to hit targets it wasn't even aiming for anyway...

It riles me, I tell you.

Rant #2
But of course, many books do aim to make their characters as believable as possible (and where they fail in this that should be pointed out). A book like The Catcher In The Rye seems to me a masterpiece of using language to depict character. But you look at the customer reviews for this book, or for any like it, and you'll it. See someone has written something like:

"I don't like the characters in this book; they're so annoying! I didn't care what happened to any of them they were so unsympathetic..."

To which I always want to respond: maybe that's a problem with your internal empathy skills, and not the book! Ever thought of that, buddy boy?

Literature is not, repeat not, a popularity contest, and it's characters don't exist for you to judge whether you 'like' them or not. They are not Facebook pages... Maybe the point of literature (or at least, the character driven kind) is precisely to allow people to empathise with those other than them, to understand how and why people make decisions that we'd never make, in situations we've never been in. To be able to grasp, in an intuitive and intimate way, that even those people we might dislike or fundamentally disagree with might have a reason why they are as they are, and the same fears and doubts underneath as us...

It seems to me, if you read only to validate your own world-view, and throw the book down in some Daily Mail style hissy-fit every time you come across someone different, rather than give your empathy muscles a workout (and empathy is like a muscle, and in some people it seems to be atrophying daily) then you are spectacularly missing the point of books, and missing out.

Okay, rant over.

Secondly, a quick note to to say that a short extract of my novella The Shelter (UK | US), is up today at the splendid Short Story Symposium blog. Check it out - the characters in it are well drawn and really likeable, honest...


Andre Jute said...

Normally I'm in your chorus, James, but on this occasion you're starting from the wrong premise.

The purpose of the class of fiction that needs "realistic" characters isn't to make them realistic in any exhaustively complete sense. That would be impossible. (Not to mention dull.) The purpose is instead to make them believable, credible.

Not that in this instance it matters, because you've arrived at the right answer anyway.

Alain Gomez said...

Interesting post! And now I will argue.

I don't necessarily think it's the job of the reader to stretch themselves in any sort of manner whatsoever to appreciate a book. I think the furthest a reader should go is at least approaching the book with an open mind. The rest is up the author.

I believe it is the job of the author appeal to the reader. The best books have some element to them that may not be realistic but appeal to the "real" reader. Take Jane Eyre for example. The entire story relies far too heavily on coincidence if you really wanted to break it down. But the fact that she is unloved is something a reader can relate to.

Once the reader is caught the author can then take the reader to whatever endpoint he/she desires. Really good authors can take a reader outside of the comfort zone.

James Everington said...

Andre - replied to you on Goodreads...

Alain - well, maybe. I don't think it's the author's job to appeal to *every* reader though. That way lies overtly commercial crap.

It just seems to me many readers approach interesting or challenging books in the same way as someone viewing a Picasso and moaning that it doesn't look much like the real city of Guernica being bombed...

Hmmm. Should have used that analogy in the post itself.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Hear hear. I like writing characters who are not appealing, in the sense that they would be hard to like if you met them in person, specifically because those characters are more likely to do unusual things. I like reading stories about characters whom I would wholly dislike if I encountered them in life. It's a way of understanding others, even if they are virtually or literally alien.

K. A. Jordan said...

First off - there are degrees of 'likeable' in different genre.

The handling of a character in a thriller is utterly different than it would be in a romance, or a mystery, or a western.

It's the writer's job to know the difference and apply the right method. (I don't like the word method, but I'm stuck with it for the moment.)

The reader shouldn't know the difference. It's not their job.

Now, if you are talking about a writer who is reviewing, that's a different critter all together. (Sorry for the pun, couldn't resist.)

Alain Gomez said...

Exactly. I agree with you there, James, in that it shouldn't be overly commercial. But as Kat was pointing to, you have to create something with a target reader in mind. The author should always know on some level what type of reader their story would appeal to.

K. A. Jordan said...

I'm going to nitpick the word 'appeal' along with the word 'likeable' because I don't think either is the point.

The character must be engaging to the reader. Their personality should be part of the hook.

I say that because real people who are 'likeable' are usually bland. They aren't quirky, difficult, driven or eccentric. Engaging characters are all that and more, as required for the story.

Granted, I tend to look for real people who are quirky, difficult, eccentric and driven - because they are so interesting.

James Everington said...

Some good comments - thanks!