Time for an embarrassing confession.
Well, two embarrassing confessions. The first is that I’m just beginning to notice how often I start my posts with embarrassing confessions.
No, I’m not going to tell you what it is. Suffice to say there are both good things and bad things about it.
Example: Whoever’s doing the soundtrack has amazing taste in music. Good.
Example: Whoever is in charge of the special effects clearly doesn’t have an adequate budget. Bad (though I do have to admit that their blood work is spectacular. Weird thing to notice, but I’ve been listed as a ‘blood master’ for at least three theatrical productions to date. It’s a peculiar specialty).
Another thing that’s good about the show is the writing. Yep, we’re getting right to it today.
I realized, in watching the third series of this show, that the writers have done something truly remarkable. In less than thirty episodes, they’ve managed to craft some of the most complex and compelling characters I’ve ever seen. There’s one in particular – let’s call him Jack, because that’s nice and generic – who fascinates me. Why? Because he single-handedly massacres about twenty innocent people in one episode and somehow, five minutes later, you still love him. You don’t want to – oh, do you ever not want to – but you do. You can’t help it. And you hate him for making you love him, and you hate him for making it so hard to do.
Then again, maybe it’s just me who loves him. I’ve been told I have peculiar taste in people.
But that’s not the point here.
The point is that these writers have managed to create a character so compelling that you can watch him slaughter twenty people in one go and then be disgusted with yourself because you’re sorry for him.
That, my friends, requires some powerfully persuasive writing.
So how do you do that? Just how exactly do you do that – create a character so complex and so fascinating that he can do something completely horrific and the audience is heartbroken about it for all the wrong reasons?
I want to take a minute to mention some other, more recognizable literary characters who fall into this same troubling category. Consider Inspector Javert. Consider the titular Phantom of the Paris opera. Consider Claude Frollo. Consider Henry Jekyll.
Why have these characters endured as long as they have?
Here’s what they have in common: They all do utterly monstrous things, but they’re just good enough that the reader desperately wants a reason to forgive them. We cringe and cry at the gruesome ends they undoubtedly deserve. Oof.
They give us hope. A fool’s hope, perhaps, but it’s there.
How do you do it? How do you craft a character so compelling? Even if you’ve passed the Mary-Sue Litmus Test with flying colors, you still may not have the seductive kind of character in question. So let’s take a look at some of the basic elements. Of course, no character is as simple as an eight-point list, but it’s good to get the tangibles out where we can see them.
Qualities of a Compelling Character
- He has a personality. He’s an individual, not a paper doll. He has tics and quirks, likes and dislikes, blemishes and allergies. He has prejudices and opinions, hopes and fears. A character can’t be one-dimensional. A character can’t be solely defined by one facet of what makes up a whole human being. This is how you get Bella Swan. She’s defined by her obsession with Edward. There’s nothing compelling about that.
- He’s not a hero. Someone who’s trying to be a hero automatically fails. Heroism is self-sacrifice for purely selfless reasons. It doesn’t happen very often. A character who is too noble, too generous, isn’t believable. Maybe he does something heroic, but maybe he does it for the wrong reasons. It’s got to be more complicated. This goes back to the Mary Sue thing. A character who’s perfect or too close to it isn’t interesting because he isn’t real. ‘Nuff said.
- But he’s not a villain either. Maybe he’s a little bit of both. Just as a character can’t be purely good, neither can a convincing character be purely bad. This is one of the biggest issues I have with fiction in general. Even if we do get complex, compelling good guys, the bad guys are cardboard cutouts of what we consider villainy. That doesn’t work. Nobody thinks of himself as the bad guy. It’s not that simple. If it is, it’s not interesting.
- He’s strong. If a character is going to have any of the audience’s sympathy, he’s got to have some strengths. He can’t be good at everything, but he’s got to have a few things in his favor. He’s brave. He’s generous. He’s gentle. He can’t be all of the above, but he needs a few admirable traits.
- But he’s also weak. Maybe he’s brave, but he’s also reckless. Maybe he’s generous but he’s also irresponsible. Maybe he’s gentle but he’s also a coward. Good traits go hand in hand with bad. They should be at war, and at the same time balance each other out. They keep a character level, and they keep a character in conflict.
- He does bad things. Even the best of men are lead into temptation. Does a character resist it? Can he? Does he do something horrible, give in to his violent side? Betray a friend because he’s jealous? We want to see our own struggles reflected in a character as complete and imperfect as we are.
- But he does good things too. Nobody is all bad. If all a character ever does is deplorable, a reader will have no sympathy for him, will have no reason to care what becomes of him, no reason to fret when he strays from the straight and narrow. You need the good with the bad. The question then becomes, can he balance out the books? Does it even work that way?
- He has the possibility of salvation before him. Why do we keep reading a book? Because we want to find out what happens next. How do you make a reader care? It’s complicated. You have to have a character they like and believe, a character that’s on the brink of a fall from grace. But what really keeps the pages turning is hope. Different readers will have different hopes for the end of a story, but if a character is moving forward with no possibility of salvation (whatever that means in the story in question) what’s the point? There has to be a question. Will he succeed or won’t he? Will he overcome his own shortcomings, or succumb to them? This is a more compelling question than ‘Will the good guy defeat the bad guy?’ If the good guy and the bad guy are the same, the consequences are greatly magnified. Most importantly, though, the reader has to have hope. Hope that this character will achieve something tremendous. If he succeeds, it is a relief, a triumph. And if he fails – catastrophe. You can no longer love him. Or the other characters can’t. The stakes don’t get much higher than that.
So how do you achieve that level of delicacy? How do you create a character whose chances at salvation are so fragile that a reader will be desperately turning pages to see if he survives intact?
I’m not sure I can tell you that. I’m not going to pretend I’ve achieved it. But I’m certainly going to try. My only advice is this: Go deep. Go deep enough that there’s no turning back. Create a character who says, ‘Follow me to certain death,’ and every reader obeys.
And this is what kept me watching three seasons of a television show I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I was watching because the premise is just that absurd. But here’s the kicker – good writing and good characters can legitimize a ridiculous premise. How often do you find yourself cringing when someone asks you what your novel’s about because you can’t find a way to explain it that doesn’t sound hopelessly lame?
Well. Maybe it’s just me.
What matters is this: You can write anything if you write it well. If you write a character who grabs the reader by the throat and refuses to let go, your story can expand beyond the bounds of what anyone would otherwise accept.
How do you do that? I don’t know. Probably by selling your soul to the devil.
Best of luck with it, either way.