Monday, September 30, 2013

Ramblings about fictional characters

I’ve been thinking about what makes me fall in love with a fictional (literary, film, or television) character. Critics bat around terms like “realistic,” “complex,” and “multi-dimensional.” I would say that the latter two traits are definitely important to me. But “realistic?” I’m actually not so sure.

Critics have praised the characters of the Hunger Games trilogy as realistic. I’ve seen reviews praising other popular genre works—Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, even the anime series Attack on Titan—as having characters that are engaging because they’re “realistic.” Bullshit. Katniss Everdeen and her friends are compelling, flawed, and complex. But “realistic?” Katniss and her friends are layered, but they’re also smarter, stronger, braver, more badass, and also better looking than any ordinary people out there.

 Maybe the term I’m trying to refute isn’t “realistic.” Maybe it’s actually “ordinary.” Katniss and her friends are not ordinary. The most beloved characters of genre (and mainstream?) fiction are not ordinary. Fans don’t seem to write fan-fiction about and cosplay “ordinary” characters. I think we all want the extraordinary.

I find an element of wish-fulfillment in the characters that I fall for. I wish I were as witty and clever as Tyrion Lannister. I wish I were as brave and badass as Jon Snow and Arya Stark. Or as principled and quietly resilient and spirited as Jane Eyre. I wish I had the clever repartee of a Joss Whedon character. For me to truly fall in love with a character, there has to be something about them which I admire. They can’t be completely admirable, of course; that would be boring, and flaws and quirks deepen my attachment. But there’s always an element of idealization in my infatuation. How else would I grow infatuated in the first place?

And I’ve fallen for deeply flawed characters. Jaime Lannister, anyone? Or to take a non-genre example—Robert Frobisher from David Mitchell’s novel “Cloud Atlas.” In the book, Frobisher is self-absorbed, entitled, manipulative; he’s a thief, a freeloader, and someone who can be extraordinarily insensitive to his best friend and one-time lover.** And yet this character is also utterly charming: his narrative voice is witty, entertaining, brilliant. And though he’s selfish and often oblivious, there’s also a kind of inconstant, childlike sweetness to him, like the flighty sweetness of a toddler. What am I falling for in this case? Is it just the brilliant charm and intelligence? Is it also the spots of vulnerability and hurt in this character? In real life I’d run like hell from this man; on the page, I’m happy to be seduced by someone so “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

There is a place for those novels and stories of ordinary upper-middle class North Americans with their ordinary, upper-middle class problems. Stories of people who are not particularly brilliant, or talented, or funny, or courageous, or angry, or. . . anything, really. Just normal people trying to muddle through their normal lives. I have loved examples of this type of story; hell, I’ve tried writing these types of stories. But you know what? While I may enjoy the beautiful language and minutely observed detail; while I may enjoy the way such a story can catch and distill some aspect of contemporary life; while I may like and feel for the characters while I’m reading, I still never fall in love with such characters. Shortly after closing the book, I forget their names.  

Give me bold strokes. Give me bright colors. Give me a character with passion and yearning. Give me a character larger than life. Give me the Struggle Against Unbeatable Odds. Or give me a seeming everyman—a seemingly ordinary person—and then put him in extraordinary circumstances and show me that he’s not ordinary at all. Give me that ordinary, insecure, fearful, wallflower and have him level up.

Here’s the tricky part. You also have to make the character relatable. You have to make her or him human enough that critics will call this character “realistic.” It’s a trick, an illusion of realism. No one in real life is actually that witty or brilliant or strong or badass or awesome. But make me believe it; and furthermore, make me so identify with your character that I believe—for just the space of a story, a novel, a television episode—that I, too, could be that awesome.

**The character of Robert Frobisher was softened considerably for the movie version of Cloud Atlas. But it is still a wonderful character—brilliantly portrayed by Ben Whishaw—and easily the best thing in the movie.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

What I want

As I left my girls in the bathtub tonight, the older one, "bean-girl," was telling the younger, "Legume," a story. Something about mermaids and jelly doughnuts.

I passed by the bathroom a few times as I put away laundry and took care of small tasks. I heard Legume enthuse, "That's a really good story!"

I heard bean-girl say modestly, "No, it really isn't. It's just a mix of things."

The next time I passed by the bathroom, I heard a squawk and ruckus. "Mom!" bean-girl cried. "Legume is being crazy! She pinched my ear!"

I sighed. "Why did you pinch, Legume? That's not nice."

"Because she won't tell me the rest of the story!" Legume pouted.

After their bath, Legume chased bean-girl around the house, demanding to hear the rest of the story. "I can't tell the rest because I don't know what happens next!" bean-girl said, giggling and running as Legume threatened to pinch her again.

And I thought, That's what I want. I want to be able to tell stories so compelling, so wicked awesome, that people want to chase me around and pinch my ears to hear the rest.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Hello, world

Well. The weather has been playing with us; it's been in the 80s this week, and the kids think it's summer as they play out in the yard, begging to stay out until the sun goes down. But it's nearly mid-September, and they're finishing their second week of school. New friends, new classes, and lots of new experiences both in and out of the classroom.

Changes for me, too.

And with those changes a new blog as well. September, someone recently said in the part of the blogosphere I visit, is a great time for re-sets.

For those who have followed me from my old blog. . . thank you. There will be a shift of focus in this new blog. Since I'm not a research scientist anymore I won't, obviously, be blogging about the world of hands-on research science. I'm trying to make a go of it as a freelance biomedical writer and editor, but I probably won't talk (too) much about that here. (I may eventually launch a separate website for more science-y posts).

This will be my place to talk a bit more about fiction writing and reading. I hope to post book reviews. I'll rant about pop-culture obsessions. I'll rant about whatever abstract issue I feel like, I suppose. You see, it's all a jumble.

And speaking of personal pop-culture obsessions. . .The anime series Attack on Titan has been ruining my life. Go see it. Even if you hate anime, go see it. I thought I hated anime, too--all the conventions of the genre, the big-eyed characters, the high, breathless Minnie Mouse voices of the females. Then I saw this series. As I raved on Facebook, it's like "Game of Thrones" on crystal meth. The Daily Dot has a great beginner's guide to the series.

Then again, maybe you don't want to start this series. Because I am still traumatized over episode 22. Because this series rips out your heart and drags it along the ground and then stomps it to a bloody, pulpy smear. Because George R. R. Martin and the creator of Attack on Titan would probably be best friends and I can't decide which one I hate more.