Saturday, January 9, 2010

Characters - Likable, Lovable, or just plain Fascinating

We all know books or movies were we see a character ruin their lives...and often its a miserable character that doesn't really deserve our good opinion...and most of the time we don't give it. A few good authors have pulled off some amazing stories full of practically unlikable characters. Why? Why would we want to see something like this?

Some examples are Gone with the Wind, Mayor of Casterbridge (and other Thomas Hardy novels), Great Expectations to a degree along with some of Dicken's other characters, some George Elliot characters, several Alexander Dumas fellows, and the Bronte sisters' work....but I haven't found to many of their characters likable, lovable, or fascinating...with their irrational behavior. :-)

Here is a great quote by Lajos Egri from his book The Art of Creative Writing
"Living, vibrating human beings are still the secret and magic formula of great and enduring writing. Read, or better, study the immortals and you will be forced to conclude that their unusual penetration into human character is what has kept their work fresh and alive through the centuries..."

Seriously, point me out a cliche character in a work by "the immortals" (the authors of the classics). Yes, Dickens plots are genius, but would you read 800 pages just to see the amazing plot wrap up at the end? No, Dickens characters are what make him a genius.

Would you read Gone with the Wind to find out how terrible the War Between the States was and that the main character learns hardly anything? No. You read it because Scarlet O'Herra and Rhett Butler are fascinating, even if mostly unlikable. Would you read The Hunchback of Notre Dame to find out that the girl never learns anything and that everyone dies at the end except the people who deserve it? No...Alexander Dumas has fascinating, believable, breathing characters.
How about Hamlet? Look at any of Shakespeare's tragedies and you can see almost unlikeable characters planting their own destruction.

Something in common with all classics is their hopelessly flawed, fascinating, and sometimes, but not always, lovable characters. It is a master story teller who can paint an incredible story and make us love the unlovable.

Here is a quote that really nails some of this idea from James Scott Bell's book Plot & Structure (a must have for anyone creating any type of story). He calls the extreme of this type of character predicament "the car wreck dynamic" and refers to An American Tragedy and the life of Clyde Griffiths. This book has been labeled "the worst written great book ever." It certainly did not get off the ground by its writing style and its plot is not extraordinary (not to mention mildly depressing) so...yeah, it was its "unlikable" very not nice main character.

Anyways, the "car wreck dynamic"....
"Just as people slow down to look at wreckage, we can't resist seeing what happens to fully drawn human beings who make an unalterable mess out of their lives. A skilled novelist can make us feel that 'there but for the grace of God go I.' "

Thanks for reading. Feel free to share your thoughts on the subject.
Miss Pickwickian


Rachel Renée said...

Great post! There's nothing like getting to know a well-developed character through the pages of a book - when they cease being mere pawns of the author's whim and become almost free-willed creatures, just as God created us.

"The Mind of the Maker" by Dorothy L. Sayers is a great book for Christian writers. It shows how our experience of creation through writing mirrors different aspects of God himself - wonderful in helping artists understand the Great Artist :)

And "Plot and Structure" by James Bell really is a terrific book! That's one I need to read again :)

dura mater said...

I really like James Scott Bell's "car wreck dynamic" image. You and I both like a lot of movies that other people seem to think are depressing. I find them fascinating, and I think the main reason is because I can usually see a bit of me somewhere in a character that is making a mess of things. I can thank God for claiming me as His, and for guiding me and keeping me from the complete "car wreck" that ultimately comes apart from His grace.

Polka Dot said...

I can definitely love characters without liking them, when they are being dumb/bad. Good authors can make us care about characters even when they are really messing up their lives and being stupid. For instance, Scarlett O'Hara is very foolish, but I still care about what happens to her in the story.