Monday, June 4, 2012

Characteristics of *Character*

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of meeting up with my local writing group for the first time in... months, I think.

...And, amid the sporadic bursts of actual writing and chatting about random things, we touched a bit on why we like to write.

For me, it's always about *character*.

What is it about some characters that feel real, where others feel like cardboard clones?

And I don't have a good answer for that. No one does, I think, 'cause it's subjective. Even if two people like the same story with the same character, I'd be willing to bet money that, even if they connected to the same character, both readers would connect in different ways.

I connect to every character I write. Even if I disagree with their thoughts, emotions, needs, desires, etc... I still connect. I understand them.

Even awful characters like Jackson.

...despite the fact that no one is sad about his death (and rightly so), I still get him. I understand that sense of entitlement that drives his decisions.

The trick now, is honing my writing in such a way that readers understand it... and by that, I don't mean I necessarily want readers to empathize with him, 'cause even I'm glad he's dead. I suppose what I mean is that I want the complexity of his character to be evident. For him to feel *real*.

...and sometimes, it's really fun to read about a truly irredeemable character.

Have you ever heard of/watched a tv show called 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia'?

The people who developed the show essentially wanted to explore all the horrible things people joke about doing (or secretly want to do)... and make a tv show about characters doing these things.

Here's a description from wikipedia of the main characters:

They are often dishonest, petty, egotistical, selfish, greedy, unethical, lazy, manipulative, deceitful, hypocritical, self-centered, vain, disloyal, unremorseful, hasty, overly competitive, immature, vengeful, and arrogant. Episodes usually find them hatching elaborate schemes, conspiring against one another and others for personal gain, vengeance, or simply for the entertainment of watching one another's downfall. They inflict physical and psychological pain. They regularly use blackmail to manipulate one another and others outside of the group.
Their unity is not solid; any of them would quickly dump the others for quick profit or personal gain regardless of the consequences. Almost everything they do results in competition among themselves and a considerable amount of the show's dialogue revolves around the characters arguing or yelling over one another. Despite their lack of worldly success, the Gang generally maintain high opinions of themselves and display an often obsessive interest in their own reputations and public images. Despite this high sense of self worth, the Gang often have little sense of shame when attempting to get what they want and will often engage in activities which others would find humiliating, disgusting, or even preposterous, such as smoking crack cocaine in order to qualify for welfare, seducing a priest, or hiding naked inside a leather couch in order to spy on someone.

Yes, this show goes way over the top in believability, but the characters... oh, even though they're all so horrible, you get them. It's like every horrible person you've ever met in real life, all rolled up into 5 main characters. They feel real, you're happy when they get what's coming to them, and you love watching them self-destruct/fail.

Bad things happening to bad people.

Let me clearly state that I have never been tempted to write a 'Mary Sue character', essentially a literary version of myself in which to explore every wish I could ever hope for.

...there's a very good reason for this.

I am not all that interested in myself.

Really, whenever I have read a book where a character is similar to myself... I either get bored or irritated. Usually the latter.

The best part of writing (and reading) is the ability to explore a character who is NOT me. Who likes things I do not, who makes assumptions I would not make, who chooses paths I would most certainly avoid. 

This is probably part of the reason I prefer to write male characters -> because I'm female .

I'm sure this can be considered a form of escapism, but instead of wanting to escape into a fantastical world of amazing things... I just want to escape into someone else's head for a while. And not be me. Even when they are horrible characters.

...which is probably why I'm doing this whole writing thing in the first place...

And if I want to escape, it's got to be believable, which is why it all comes back to characters.

Whenever I encounter a character that feels like a cardboard clone, I wonder how real that character was to the author. Did they have a visual image? Could they hear the tone of the voice clearly? See the body language/mannerisms/ticks? Was the failure to connect just a disconnect between me (the reader), or was it a failure of the author in their ability to transmit essential character-building-information?

Do you think about why you connect with certain characters over others? Do you find they are similar to yourself, or not? What about the ones you write compared to the ones you connect to when you read? How clearly can you imagine the characters you connect with versus the ones that feel like cardboard?


  1. I can understand where you're coming from, finding reading and writing much more of an escape than anything. And as you pointed out, it is helpful to have the believability there. I have a few characters that I have connected with in unexpected ways, especially a villian that I tried to make just a "bad guy" but even he has a story behind his madness.

    It can be quite interesting the way we connect with characters.

    1. That's it exactly, the story behind the madness... even if it never comes out on the page, there is a necessity in having hints of that to make the character feel real.

  2. Characters are what makes a book or a film or a tv show. If the characters have no personality then the plot is immaterial. And there are only just so many plots. Hmm though you seem to be marking new territory. I agree I connect with all my characters too. I’ve dropped two that I started 2 years ago cause the connection was gone. I couldn’t hear them.
    Never heard of the show - sounds interesting

    I have to play “yeah but” here. No matter how different a character seems, there is still some of us in that personality.
    G’ nite - early class tomorrow

    1. Oh yeah, I definitely agree that there's some of *me* even in characters like Jackson. That's what I mean about understanding/connecting, even if I disagree with them.

      I rarely ever do this, but Jackson was... slightly inspired by someone I used to know. Not in terms of anything in the story, but in terms of that sense of sociopathic disregard for other people's thoughts/feelings/etc.


Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)