As an author whose books are very character driven, I take it as a high compliment when readers tell me I made my characters live in their minds. In Forgetting My Way Back to You, one of the characters, Mabel, wrote a note to protagonist Charlee, which contained timeless wisdom about love and forgiveness. This version of Mabel—who’s also featured in Wrong Line, Right Connection—is ninety years old, about seventy years my senior when I wrote her letter to Charlee. You can imagine my delight, then, when people asked me if I based that on a real note, since it sounded so much like an older woman’s thoughts. I still haven’t decided if that means I was wise beyond my twenty-one years or if I just have geriatric tastes!
While we strive to create vivid characters that leap off the page, we still need to strike a balance. As discussed in “Keeping the Fiction in Fiction“, most readers like to escape from reality through their books. A dose of real-world problems can enhance a story and make it more relatable, but if we carry it too far, we can drive a reader away. When it comes to our heroes/heroines, especially, we ought to draw a stranger-than-fiction line, stopping short of making a character do exactly what an actual person might do in real-life.
Most of us do this to some degree without even thinking about it. For instance, we might say the character visited the restroom, but we don’t often elaborate on the specifics of what happens in there. Why? Because everybody knows the gist of it, and it wouldn’t add much more than disgust to detail the dirty deed. Although toymakers have added those quirks to make their dolls realistic, we realize those habits will serve as a distraction from the plot.
This same rule applies to inner traits of a character. Granted, no one’s perfect, and making characters too goody-goody turns plenty a reader off, as well. Just about every story out there is fueled by mistakes and flaws protagonists encounter, and watching how they handle them draws us to them. At the same time, we crave that escape reading provides, so don’t we hold a fictitious character to higher standards than we do even of ourselves? In fact, we may at times look to a hero/heroin to be the role model we never had.
Two of my favorite authors have disappointed me in this regard with their latest works, which inspired this post. They both chose to center their plots around very complicated, albeit lifelike, characters. These protagonists represent realities in our society, and I suppose some could argue they give a voice to those who are misunderstood.
I’m all for shining a light on unique, maybe even suppressed, perspectives, but the qualities they instilled in these characters didn’t make me root for them like the authors probably wanted. Rather, they tainted the whole tale that surrounded them, and I didn’t finish one of them because of that. I realize each one presented insight into very real issues—with one being based on a true story—but as a fan of fiction, I didn’t reap much joy because I was too preoccupied with silently yelling at the characters.
Of course, you can always take more chances with antagonists, as everyone loves to hate a villain. Even so, you need a boundary there, too. Stories vary in grittiness, and some authors choose to make their villains do pretty despicable acts. When deciding how vile to make a bad guy, it’s important to consider your target audience, including publishers. Some companies won’t review submissions that feature the most heinous crimes that are committed. Besides that, you don’t want to overblow how evil they are, unless you’re doing it in a satirical way. If you turn a thief into a murderer into a drug lord into a double-crossing spy all in one book, readers will likely get confused and deem it unrealistic.
Authors ought not underestimate the impact of their characters on readers. They may only exist on a few hundred pages or less, but they can stick with someone for a lifetime, perhaps becoming a friend of sorts. When forming them, we should establish realistic elements but also maintain that dose of fiction that can taste so sweet. Fictional characters may not be able to change the world, but they can bring hope and inspire their fans to do their part.