Modern fiction is increasingly about character, less about plot. Aristotle would not necessarily have approved: he argued that character follows
It was not until the arrival of speaking motion pictures, ‘talkies’, that viewers could be presented with an immersive visual experience that could completely show the story, without having to narrate it.
Previously, written literature was the king of plot in a way which theatre could never be: theatre required a constant suspension of disbelief. Shakespearean theatre required the exercise of the imagination to a great extent. Nineteenth-century theatre, with its detailed stages and scenery behind the Proscenium
Written literature had no such bounds: anything which could be imagined could be written, anything which could be written could be read, and re-enter the imagination.
I still believe that plot is important in a good story. And I
But what written literature has—and always will have—which film can never have is the ability to get inside a character. We see Bilbo Baggins in the film, but we know him in the book.
This is not limited to ‘literary fiction’ (scurrilously defined as ‘books people discuss without having read’). A Lyndsey Davis, or a Suzanne Collins keeps you reading because of your close association with the lead character. We are concerned about Katniss, and Falco, and even Flavia Albia. we want to know what makes them tick. Readers fall in love with Lizzy Bennett long before they become interested in
To me, a truly effective novel is compelling from the point of view of
But how does that work? When I was closely involved with young adult writers, I saw more agonising about characterisation than anything else. Much of it was pointless: people would compile long lists of a character’s preferences, history, mannerisms, family history and styles of dress. They would conduct interviews with their characters, imagine them in alternative scenarios, even slip them into other stories. They were, above all, desperate to avoid the ‘Mary Sue‘.
They were not the first to attempt
So what makes a truly compelling character? The answer—I would suggest—is quite the opposite of what most people think.
The compelling character
The clue is in the word ‘character’. What is a character? Certainly not a real person. A character is an inscribed letter. A Ž, or ? or ?. If you say of someone ‘he is quite a character’, you are not entirely complementing them. Such a person is not really larger than life—which would make them a hero— but smaller than life. They seem like they belong on the stage, not at a family BBQ.
Attempting to recreate real people in books is pointless. It can’t be done, and, even if it could, we encounter real people every day without having to pay a publisher for the privilege of doing so. Many of my most avidly reading friends would describe themselves as introverts. They are not looking to increase their range of relationships with real people when they read. But they are looking for something.
On the other hand, distilling characters down to simple figures—like the Hero with a Thousand Faces—does not satisfy either. This can work, or appear to work, in a movie, or even on the stage, because we are presented with
Consider for a moment the modern phenomenon which is Harry Potter. No character in the last fifty years has captured the popular imagination in the way of Harry. But if we look at the investment in
Harry, by contrast, says and thinks only the things which we the readers would say and think, in his position. This is not because Rowling doesn’t know how to write a focal character, but exactly because she does. Noone since Dickens has written with such an outrageously rich imagination coupled with such a supply of memorable characters. It’s often been pointed out that we know more about minor characters in Dickens than we do about major characters by most other novelists, but what is more often overlooked is that we know much less about Dickens’s major characters. We have a much stronger sense of Miss Havisham or Magwitch than we do of Pip. Paul Dombey is no more than a slate onto which things are written, and Florence Dombey fares little better. And yet it would be well into the realms of foolhardiness to suggest that Dickens did not know how to write characters.
Major and minor?
You could respond to this by saying that the narratorial character—or focal character for a third-person narrative—is a functional proxy for the reader. We are supposed to see ourselves in Harry, or Bilbo, and so
I think there is some functional truth in this. Dickens, Rowling, Chandler
Creative writing books, and teachers, and the members of the literary community which turned down JK
But our most
The unanswered question
I want to suggest that a character in a novel is essentially an unanswered question. The question is asked when the character first appears. When the question is answered, the story is over. For there to be a sequel, a new question has to be asked.
The question does not have to be spelled out—not in the way that Tolkien spells it out at the start of the Hobbit—but it needs to be clear enough for us to take an interest. The question can be as general as ‘what is this person like’ or ‘what really makes them tick’, or as pointed as, in Lord Jim, ‘is Jim an
At the start of Nostromo—to my mind one of the greatest novels of the golden age of novel-writing—we are introduced to the character of Fidanza, ‘Nostromo’, in such glowing terms as regards him being a man of
I have only read Nostromo once, more than thirty years ago, but it still lives in my memory. The character of Fidenza is indelibly engraved on my consciousness. By contrast, I reviewed a new novel last week, and can no longer remember the name of the main character (Kane, perhaps?), nor have I any real interest in finding out what happens to him in a sequel.
At the start of the first Harry Potter book, the question is ‘will Harry Potter be allowed ‘in’?’ He is an outsider where he lives. From the moment he arrives at Hogwarts, he lives in fear of expulsion. The story closes with his final acceptance. Other questions are brought to our minds in the following books. To my mind, the least successful is The Order of the Phoenix, and this is at least partially to do with the fact that there is no new question about Harry that really grips us.
Virtually any question can keep us engaged with a character. Will Odysseus get home? Will Crusoe get off the island? Will Lizzy Bennett escape her fate of being married off for the sake of having somewhere to live? Will Winston Smith find something worth living for? Will Bilbo become the adventurous type? Will Marlowe get ahead of all the people trying to manipulate him for long enough to figure out what is going on?
The questions don’t have to be simple ‘will he or won’t he?’ questions. In adventure fiction, the question of survival is, of course, always important. But in one of English’s first great adventures, Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight, we are much more interested in the question of whether Gawain will lose his nerve and break his promise, or whether he will be found wanting. Connoisseurs of the Arthur cycle surely know that he is going to survive, even if they can suspend this knowledge to keep the story interesting. At the conclusion, the story finishes where it does not because Gawain has survived, but because we have the final assessment on his
To be clear, what I am suggesting is that a compelling character in fiction is not a person, but the raising of a question about a persona in the book. What makes them compelling is not the depth of description, but the degree of our investment in wanting to know the answer. The reader literally creates the character as they read. The raw materials are provided by the author, and the interest in the question can be stoked or doused by how the story is handled. Directive writing can force the reader to perceive the character in a way close to that of the author, and more open writing can allow the reader to imagine themselves into the character.
Beyond the printed page
We began talking about the particular importance of character to literature, but the notion of character as
Shakespeare did not invent this, though. Oedipus the King, Antigone and the Oresteia can all be described as plays which ask a question about the title character at the beginning, and conclude when that question is answered.
The world of film and animation also benefits from this. In Netflix’s seminal (though not at all times safe for family viewing) series Love, Death
Still in the realm of science-fiction, the unlikely 1979- hit-series, Mad Max, initially shot on
To a certain extent, all films must ask questions to be watchable at all, so we must be careful of imposing a template on them. However, to my mind, films which take a famous actor who always plays effectively the same character and about whom, therefore, all the worthwhile questions have already been asked, have little in the way of character interest. I enjoy Schwarzenegger, but I have no illusions about depth or surprise. Noomi Rapace does rather better: I cannot look at the character of Liesbeth Salander in the Millennium trilogy, and from that make guesses about her character in Prometheus or Closer.
Leaving the reader to do the work
As a BBC Radio 4 journalist once told me (I believe it is an adage in her trade), ‘the pictures are always better on the radio’. Our tendency as writers is to write exhaustively. We want to fulfill our side of the bargain, give the reader so much imaginative detail that they feel they are right there with us. But the great stories that dwell in the imagination — Le Petit Prince, The Snow Queen, The Lion, the Witch
For writers struggling to make their characters live in the minds of the readers, my suggestion would be to think of more intriguing questions, rather than providing more exhaustive answers.
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the Hobbit, Great Expectations, The Wind in the Willows, The Big Sleep, Heart of Darkness and The Sword in the Stone ↩