Recently I wrote up a blog post about Fourth Street Fantasy in Minneapolis, which I attended a couple weeks ago. Several people indicated interest in some of the panel topics, like:
“Truth, Lies, and Meta”
How do you get readers to believe in a character?
What makes us believe in a world or a character, what undermines that, and how can that tension be leveraged?
I thought this would be a great topic for discussion, though at the outset I wonder if belief is too volatile a word—what we’re doing when we read is more of a suspension of belief, because we know the story is fiction going in. All my life I’ve enjoyed rereading Lord of the Rings, since that first immersive experience when I was fourteen, but I never believed Frodo, or Tom Bombadil, or Eowyn existed. Invest? Follow?
As I considered this topic over the intervening days, my initial thought was that any discussion is going to have to acknowledge subjectivity at the outset. There is no standard for Believable (or investment-worthy) characters. There are readers who criticized J.K. Rowlings for writing characters they considered flat and stereotypical, one-dimensional in action and prose. Obviously millions and millions disagreed.
Coming at the question from another direction, a hundred fifty years ago, Gustave Flaubert complained bitterly about readers who dared to identify with the characters in his novel Madame Bovary. The reader was supposed to despise these word-puppets he’d made up, preferably finding them risible, much less admirable or familiar. He was horrified to get letters from readers who felt that he had brought their own inner lives to life, and who had invested emotionally in his doomed lovers.
Investment might be a better term than belief: what causes readers to invest in characters?
Some like avatars. I’ve heard romance readers talk about how much they enjoy reading about women like themselves falling in love successfully with the type of partner they admire most.
Others howl with disgust at that—they demand verisimilitude in their characters. And a third set would rather read about characters “larger than life” rather than collections of petty neurosis they can find around them at work and on the subway every day.
A lot of these readers are lured by what I call the seduction of competence: characters who have agency, especially with panache. Anyone who has dreamed of stepping forward and having the right idea, which everyone responds to, and leading the way to righting an egregious wrong instead of cowering back waiting for someone else to act (or, worse, stepping forward just to be shouted down scornfully, or totally ignored) probably looks for characters who either start out as heroes, or attain heroism through hard work.
So those are the easy ones: readers willingly invest in characters they can fall in love with, or identify with, or admire. And then there are the characters who fascinate for whatever reason, like the many who couldn’t get enough of Hannibal Lector. Some are drawn to characters who are monstrous, or ridiculous.
Then there are the characters who trick the reader into investment through the complexity of human contradictions, such as the man on the way to the gallows who carefully avoids stepping in a puddle. These sorts of details can catch the imagination because they are inexplicable, and less deliberate than, say, the serial killer who is kind to cats.
Such moments can be found in stories that are still beloved, such as the old spinster whose cap is subtly altered to look as much like a widow’s cap as she dares after the unrequited love of her life (admired silently from a distance over forty years) dies, in Cranford. When Elizabeth Gaskell gave over the standard tropes of Victorian fiction (the deathbed confession, the pure, submissive heroine, the angelic child doomed to die of consumption but who first converts all the adults around with their innocence) and provided these precise and inexplicable details of her spinsters’ lives, readers were enchanted.
I’ve seen essays written over the decades after Gaskell’s death that mention the little spinsters busy pushing a newspaper across their new carpet from hour to hour as they sewed, in order to prevent sun damange, a detail more memorable than the most dramatic deathbed sermons in others of her works.
Whether these characters are poverty-stricken spinsters in a small town protecting their new rug or hairy footed hobbits trudging wearily toward Mount Doom to throw the evil ring into the lava, inexplicable details somehow make what the characters do, think, and say, become important to the reader—sometimes as important as the doings of real people in family and environment.
Confounding the reader’s expectations can be so intriguing! Little actions that mask and then reveal motivation—the woman who always has to go in the door first sets up expectations of a snob, but what if she is nervous, fretful, always watching the door rather than taking center space as one who has the right? Is she leading or escaping?
The old man who jingles his keychain before making a decision may or may not be interesting, but the tightening of his wife’s lips, the way her blue-veined eyes shutter when she hears that noise, might sharpen the reader’s interest. The sudden silence over a gathering when they hear the rhythmic scrape, round and round, of a teaspoon in a cup, can spark tension: why such a profound reaction to something so mundane?
So what undermines investment in a character? The easiest answer is actions that punt the reader out of the story. I’ve seen a lot of expressions covering that: “out of character, unbelievable, shock for shock’s sake, I felt the author’s hand shoving them from plot point to plot point.”
Usually what that means is that the narrative voice has failed to provide the logical, emotional, or unconscious motivations for the characters, so their decisions and actions become unconvincing.
Then there are the characters whose narrator has provided detailed analysis and conclusions, just to be dismissed by readers as boring, or irritating, because those readers do not like being told what to think. They would rather come to conclusions about the characters themselves.
Finally, “How can that tension be leveraged?” That is the most intriguing question of all because I don’t understand it. What is leveraging in character investment? Definitions welcome!
For me, investment tends to happen not only in intriguing motivation and inexplicable detail, but when I encounter a character who can laugh at himself; in the sf and f genre, one of my longest lasting favorites is Lois McMaster Bujold’s hunch-backed, brittle-boned Miles Vorkosigan, who survives almost entirely on wit, adrenaline, and self-irony. I don’t really understand leveraging in fiction,, but I find humor a powerful leveler.
How about you?