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.