Saturday, December 17, 2005


The trouble with too many comtemporary novels is that they are full of people not worth knowing. The characters slide in and out of the mind with hardly a ripple. They levy no tax on the memory; they make little claim on the connecting power of identification. They make only the skimpiest contribution to an understanding of the human situation. They leave you cold.
Norman Cousins

The trend over the past few years seems to be to redo things. We've had our return to Star Wars (which was a superb money-making scam on Lucas's part and a waste of my time). In a year where the box office has slumped to record lows for intake, what is it people are going to see? Long-time classic stories like The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe have been adapted to the big screen, and King Kong has been redone.

It would be easy to pick on Hollywood in a discussion of crap production. Why is it that I feel like so many movies are trying too hard and failing? I simply don't find the characters...believable. Or endearing. Or even deliciously evil. The only "new" movie superhero in the past few years to really appeal to me is Spiderman. And that's an adaptation of an old comic from the 60's.

For me, the problem with television and movies is that I have been spoiled by having a taste of greatness, so everything else falls short by comparison, but I'll save my spiel on the wonders of The Wire for another time. Like in the countdown to the new season, airing next month on HBO.

But when I look at the volumes upon volumes of books out there, I find myself wondering just what it is about some characters that captivate us? What is it that makes a character legendary and other characters entirely forgettable?

For me, character is critical. I want to find great authors with a series character that I am positively salivating to read more about. Dennis Milne and Logan McRae spring to mind, though I suspect in Logan's case I've been influenced by the mischievious tactics of the author and am simply just too bloody nosey to be able to live without knowing if he and Jackie had sex. If the next book doesn't answer that, I may have to ply the author with numerous drinks until I can get him to fess up.

Seriously, I suppose part of it is because they're both flawed but on a path, working on sorting things out. They aren't reckless playboys who don't give a damn about anyone or anything. Sure sure, Milne has a little problem with murder, but he's a principled killer. And I can completely appreciate the desire to throttle some people.

And that's a weird thing about me. When I think of characters I love, the overwhelming majority are male characters. Rebus, Thorne, Milne, McRae, Tony Hill.

So, what is it for you that makes a character so compelling that you must get your hands on every book in the series, or that you're sad to see the book come to an end because you want desparately to continue on the journey with the characters you've come to love?


Anonymous said...

For me a compelling character has to be:
- convincing enough to seem real
- likeable, or at least someone I can empathise with
- admirable in some way, though not perfect


Anonymous said...

For me
-The motivations.
-The inner thought.
-Unique experiences.

M. G. Tarquini said...

I'm not a series reader, but I can tell you characters that stick in my head - the ones without too much makeup. Think of Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. I'm using these examples because you're mentioning movies, not just books, but the best movies come from really good books.

The Kitchen God's Wife captivated me because of the female character. I remember the passage in which she bought the best meat she could find in the market, no matter what the cost. That's because she was making dumplings for her husband's friends. They were at war and she didn't know if her meal would be the last they would eat.

The Remains of the Day is an excellent example of real people faced with real, if unmomentous circumstances, unmomentous to the world at large, anyway.

I like characters that act like real people, possessed of quirks and flaws, doubts and moments of insight. That holds true no matter what the genre.

The kids just went to see Narnia with a neighbor. That lets me off the hook. I'm fine with my memories of the book. I don't need it 'brought to life'.

Sandra Ruttan said...

12 Angry Men is a brilliant movie. That's a really good example...well, of a lot of things. I mean, using one room and a small cast with no real 'action' per se, and yet keeping the audience on the edge of their seat.

We all seem to be in agreement that we like our characters to be 'real'. Maybe I should have asked as well, what makes a character unbelievable?

M. G. Tarquini said...

what makes a character unbelievable?

I'm going out on a limb and using the word 'cartoonish' for unbelievable. Any character who is all of one thing - always sad, always happy, always right, always wrong. It's the guy who always trips over his feet when he enters a room, the girl who always has all the proper wardrobe items no what the occasion or the season. The characters of SNL skits, or Bunionesque parody.

Everybody is a weird mix of selfish and selfless, noble and ig-, clueless and on top of things. Real people have motivations for what they do, reasons they do the opposite of what people expect. That's the secret. An author has to step into a character's shoes and be honest with himself. 'Much as I want 'X' to do this and that's what I wrote in the plot and on his character outline...what would 'X' really do in this situation.'

I have a set of standard openings I wrote poking a little fun at this past year's nano entries. Maybe I'll put it up tomorrow.

Sandra Ruttan said...

m.g. that's a great response. When I was thinking about this, I was going to say 'stereotypes' or 'cliched characters' are the ones I find least appealing, least believable.

Which makes me think about one of my short stories, Write To Kill, because in the editing phase way over a year ago now, someone said to me that all the secondary characters except one were cliches. Since those people were being seen from the main character's POV, that made sense to me, because he needed people to fit into boxes, and all those other characters had the briefest blips in the story - there wasn't time to round them out more.

Which is why I have a hard time writing short stories. I want to explore people and subplots and short stories don't provide the space for them. So I try to give myself one goal and tell myself I'm happy if I achieve that one target.

"An author has to step into a character's shoes and be honest with himself."

That's so true. I love it when a character surprises me, even if they give me a bit of a plot headache in the process. But then, I don't pre-plot my novels extensively. I'm a 'fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants' person.

Oh, I'd like to see those standard openings. That would be fun!

& Jason, do you have an example of what you mean by 'unique experiences'?

M. G. Tarquini said...

I'm a flash fiction addict. Also an occasional drabbler. That's the poet in me coming out. Poetry done right expresses a lot in a little space. For example. Here's an eight word story I wrote titled 'Saturday Night':

Men come
Drink rum.
They're laid
We're paid.