Why I Don’t Care About Your Characters

Disclaimer: My boyfriend tells me I’ve already written a rant about how dumb the characters in Rob Roy were, but I think this one is better than the one I don’t remember, so I’m posting this anyway.


Content Note: This post occasionally mentions rape, because my movie example, Rob Roy, is pretty much all about it.


Anecdote Time: Characters That Make Me Quit

There are two archetypes that I absolutely despise: The unapologetically evil villain who does evil for the sake of evil, and the pure wonderful hero who has no weaknesses and never does anything wrong.

I’m going to talk about a movie, for a second (and by a second, I mean forever): Rob Roy. I have a serious weakness for Liam Neeson. I will watch pretty much anything that has his name on it. But this movie… these characters… they are so poorly written. The bad guy is a monster, you know because he tortures poor people for no reason and rapes the good guy’s wife because he’s so evil (I have a huge problem with rape as a device to show how evil someone is as well, but we can talk about that later). Liam? Has no flaws. He is perfect, except for the part where he lives in an oppressive society.

Obviously, everyone supports him and follows him into battle and fawns all over him and kisses his beautiful Scottish feet. Duh.

 

Elements of a believable character

 

Motivation

Why was Rob Roy’s villain so unbelievable? He appeared to be doing evil things for kicks. I’m not saying that no one ever does anything bad for funzies, but I would think that would tend to be rare. Your villain has to want something, and be willing to do anything to get it. And “more power” is sometimes that want, but it’s kind of a boring one. I know I’ve read that story a thousand times.

And what about your hero? Just along for the ride? Saving the world because, well, shit, someone’s gotta do it? I don’t buy it. What’s in it for them? Family? Love? Money? Maybe they don’t want to do it at all, but external factors are forcing them to?

Every character in your story, down to the most mundane ordinary character that we only meet once, must have some motivation, something that they want that drives what they do and how they do it.

 

Flaws

Liam Neeson is perfect. I guess I don’t mean in real life, because I don’t know the guy, but as Rob Roy, he sure is. Honorable, noble, never kicks someone who’s down, wants to save the Scots because someone has to, and he’s the strongest and noblest.

Readers relate to characters through their flaws. Everyone can sympathize when someone does something unrealistic or stupid in an attempt to impress someone. Everyone has hesitated to do something because they weren’t sure they could do it right, or because they were afraid of success.

Part of making a successful character is making your reader feel the same way the character does, to feel empathy for their mistakes and misfortunes, and to cheer with them when they succeed. Or at least to understand where they are coming from.

If a character is perfect, the best your reader can do is wish they were perfect, too. And that’s kind of sad, because real people never are.

 

Consistency

I originally named this section “Intelligence” and ranted for a while about how the protagonists in mystery novels do such stupid things, even as we’re being told how smart they are. Then I realized, the stupidity isn’t the problem. The problem is that we are being told that they are smart, and we are supposed to accept it, but then the character does stupid thing after stupid thing.

I’ll allow a possible exception for the unreliable narrator, but otherwise, characters should act in a manner consistent with their personality, and their other actions throughout the book. The kinds of actions they take can change over the course of the story: they can get desperate, more cautious as the stakes go up, they can become braver, they can learn from mistakes, whatever. But these new actions come from somewhere. They aren’t random.

I have to give Rob Roy one thing… it’s perfect characters are perfectly consistent.

 

Choices

I’m not a huge fan of stories where the characters don’t make any meaningful or difficult choices. This happens occasionally in plot driven stories, since the characters are in crisis mode, simply reacting to things that happen to them. But even in a plot-driven story, it is possible, and I would argue, necessary, to set up a situation in which characters need to make choices contrary to their core values in order to survive, and that, my friends, is interesting.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Rob Roy, so my example is falling apart here, but I don’t remember anyone making any difficult choices. The closest I can come up with is noble wife “chooses” not to disclose her rape, not because she’s ashamed or having difficulty dealing with it or because she is being portrayed as a real person in any way, but because it would “make her husband reckless.” This appears to be only slightly difficult for her, and the difficult part is actually keeping it a secret, not, you know, HAVING BEEN RAPED. Ugh, I need to go take a shower.

 

What About Change?

When I was in high school English classes, we were taught that the difference between flat characters and well-rounded characters was whether or not they changed by the end of the story. I am no longer convinced by that argument.

I have come to believe that change may or may not be the result of Choices, above, and whether or not the character changes has little to do with whether they’re a realistic and complex character, and more to do with their personality. Captain Kirk never really changes, any more than token increases in caution as he gets older, but I wouldn’t call him a flat character. He faces incredibly difficult and complex choices all of the time, and responds to them in a manner consistent with his character.

I think worrying too much about change is a distraction. Worry about choices and motivation instead.

 

These Elements Are Not Optional

I hear you. You don’t want anyone to tell you how to write. I understand. But I think that having any of these elements missing is infuriating and confusing, and the last thing you want to do is simultaneously infuriate and confuse your reader. How are you supposed to care about a character who doesn’t want anything? How are you supposed to worry about a character who is perfect? How are you supposed to understand the behavior of a character that is inconsistent? How are you supposed to empathize with a character that never makes any choices?

Your minor characters may not have space to make choices on screen, but they had still better have motivation, flaws, and be consistent. The weird old lady walking down the street past the protagonist is doing so because she wants something. And when she gets there, she is going to have to decide which brand of something she wants.

You must ask “Why?”, and let your characters tell you why they do things. Because if you don’t know, your reader isn’t going to know either. And how will they care if they don’t know why?

2 Comments

  1. About the rape bits:

    A friend of mine worked in Africa for awhile (yeah, that’s all I know) and she’s mentioned that, because rape is such a fact of life in _____ {whatever country she was in} the women aren’t, I guess I should say ‘scarred’ by rape as much as here. There’s no stigma attached to it, for one thing, no talk of having done something to ‘make’ it happen. It’s just, you know, a shitty fact of life.

    I bring all this ugliness up to say, you know, it’s not actually so weird that it wouldn’t come up with Rob Roy’s wife, just because rape wouldn’t have reflected badly on HER, it would have reflected badly on HIS MASCULINITY, if anything. And hence, yeah, probably made him reckless, if he had been a realistic representation of a man of his time.

    Also, I’m watching The Wire with my friend right now and he said how one of the criticisms of the wire was that in real life, gangsters are a lot more rapey.

    And I was like, dude, where are your eyes? There have been SO MANY examples of sexual coercion, I LITERALLY do not know where to start. They have done *everything* short of actually showing rape.

  2. I might be willing to buy that if, (a) the rest of the movie was historically accurate, and (b) the characters had some other source of depth. As it is, the rape was not part of her character, or his character, but just a device to show how evil the bad guy was and how strong and noble the good guy was. And I just think there are better devices for that kind of thing.

    The Wire is pretty seriously rapey. I am right there with you. They try to be a little subtle about it, which I don’t think is a bad thing. It’s a thing, it happens, and they don’t want to glorify it, or really think about it much more than they have to. It’s not what the story is about.

    In fact, I think Rob Roy would have benefited quite a bit from a little bit of subtlety. Have it happen off screen, and let the viewer realize what happened a few minutes before he does.

    I just think, that as a plot device, rape is a really blunt instrument, and while I don’t have a problem with it (in fiction) unilaterally, I do think it’s often a shortcut. Couldn’t make characters that anyone could care about? Get one of them raped, then they’ll have to care. Couldn’t figure out why your villain is evil? Have him rape someone, then no one will question it. Reluctant hero doesn’t want to knock heads together? Rape someone he cares about. Oh, he doesn’t care about anyone? Rape a little girl. The whole thing just reeks of emotional manipulation. And it’s lazy.

    There are stories to be told about rape. I can point you towards a couple of good ones. But if the story’s not about rape, there is almost certainly a better way.

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