Frodo. Robin Hood. Jane Eyre. D’Artagnan and his compatriots. Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy. King Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere.
Part of the unique shared memory that is created by our reading of books is the character who we love dearly, almost as dearly as friends and family. Our favorite characters abide in our minds alongside actual people we know, for our entire lives. Can’t we see them so vividly, almost hear their voices? How many of us have gone to a film of a favorite book, and been disappointed because the actor isn’t really the “right” person for the role—doesn’t match that inner vision?
When I’ve asked readers to define why they remember these characters, I sometimes hear about heroism, and sometimes about how creepy they are, but always there’s something memorable, “They just seem so real.” Or even “Larger than life.”
Some say that ‘literary’ fiction is all about mirroring how ordinary people react in normal circumstances. Speculative fiction speculates about how people react in extraordinary circumstances. This is where we get heroes, who demonstrate the ability to lead and to act. In the story their action is the right one. They possess charisma that gets people to actually listen in an emergency, when in real life most of us get shouted down with a variation on “Who do you think you are?” if we try to add our opinion to the clamor.
Memorable characters are like famous historical figures in that both shape our evolving culture with the human gestures, reactions, expressions, habits we all recognize and emulate. And likewise memorable antagonists are a combination of negative traits that pique our interest, even if just long enough to exert ourselves to avoid being like them; others are fascinated by them, much like being fascinated by fire.
Our opinion of memorable characters varies from reader to reader—what is admirable to one reader might be stodgy or offensive to another—but as social rules alter, our response to characters alters as well. Literature is replete with characters who behave according to a philosophy the author wishes to propound, whether moral, social, or political. Novels of the 1800s were full of female characters whose straying from the patriarchy’s strict moral path for women automatically condemned them to a deathbed scene of misery and repentance. During the days of the Elder Edda memorable heroes hacked and smashed their way through countless victims in order to exact revenge—to the applauding of the audience of the time. If we met one of those guys now we’d be calling 911 fast.
There are also allegorical characters. These are not just figures of old fiction, but there are writers who create them now, to serve as stick figures in Idea Novels. These are characters whose entire existence is devoted to a single purpose. In reality, even famous leaders were a jumble of passions, moods, contradictions, even confusions. Perhaps the messages of allegories might be remembered, but I really don’t believe the characters will.
Writers’ heads are populated with the characters they find most fascinating. The challenge is in getting those characters onto the page so that they leap with equal fascination into the heads of readers.
At the very first workshop I ever attended, a fellow writer talked tirelessly about how she’d been in love with the male protagonist of her fantasy trilogy for years. When it came to be her turn, I’d picked up her chapters eagerly, hoping to discover another D’Artagnan or Mr. Darcy, but what I found was the same guy I’d been seeing in fantasy epics all during the seventies, right down to his raven locks. (His hair wasn’t black. It was raven.)
By the time I’d read several chapters during which not much happened except that this guy tended to pose a lot (as women longed to be with him and men longed to be like him), uttering heroic speeches, he was beginning to remind me of my high school principal, only even more pompous.
The faces of my fellow workshoppers as we assembled for the session on that story made it clear that whatever reality this character had in his writer’s mind just wasn’t getting down onto the paper. But when this began to come out during the discussion, the writer said our critiques were useless as none of us seemed able to get the “nuances” of this character, so emendation wouldn’t be true to his reality. Sometimes characters take on more life in our heads than is visible on paper, whether ours or someone else’s characters. (Look at all the fan fiction about Draco Malfoy, giving him a lot more motivation and variety then he ever demonstrated in canon.)
I think it’s inevitable that the characters who have the most effect on us, especially in early reading, are going to show up in our writings. I keep waiting for some young scholar to trace Sir Percy Blakeney to Sir Peter Wimsy and thence to Francis Crawford of Lymond, and then to Jamie of Outlander, and on to the many works that that book has, in its, turn inspired. But these characters, though perhaps inspired by the dashing hero previous to him, each took on his own characteristics until he became a separate entity. Ditto Becky Sharpe and Scarlett O’Hara.
One of the reasons why I think the current fashion for mashups will fade out of memory is the Xerox effect—taking tropes from other types of stories and sticking them into variations on well-known works so that each seems a bit more blurred, a little more flat and ultimately forgettable.
There’s another aspect: when people write real people into fiction. Hitler and Stalin and various U.S. Presidents have shown up in countless fictive works, but so do lesser known people. This has been going on for centuries. Caro Lamb had an instant best seller in her Mary Sue Glenarvon in which she not only wrote herself as two different perfect heroines (each getting a perfect death) but she gleefully penned her anger over Byron dumping her, and scored off most of the upper reaches of London Society at the same time.
Sometimes writers write themselves in as vaguely masked characters, like Patrick Dennis did. All his books were published under Patrick Dennis; in several of them (I think the best is Genius and Auntie Mame) he was the first person narrator, but there never was an Auntie Mame. Who is remembered later? Auntie Mame has managed to slide into popular culture, whereas no one remembers Patrick Dennis’s fictional self, and not many could name who created Auntie Mame.
David Bratman, a Tolkien scholar, recently published a list of fictive works in which the three most famous Inklings, Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams, have appeared.
Anyway, there is my ramble, in hopes of sparking some discussion on what makes memorable characters, both for you as readers, and or you as writers?
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