Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What Makes a Favorite Character?

What do my favorite characters have in common? They all possess characteristics I’d like to have. They are all, to at least some extent, someone I’d like to be.

Some, such as Maverick and Huck Finn, are rebels—adventuresome free spirits who are fiercely true to themselves. Captain Jack Sparrow is…well, he’s in your face, and definitely an original. But what most of my favorite characters have in common is honor, intelligence, and courage. Many are also cool, calm and calculating, something I really, really wish I could be (rather than hot-headed and passionate).

I’m wondering if this desire to, in a sense, BE a favorite character explains the scarcity of female characters on men’s lists of favorite characters. From the time I was a child, I saw myself as the male characters I was reading about, whether I was floating down the Mississippi with Huck or riding across the desert with the Kid. Yet none of the men I’ve discussed this concept with seem to be able to make that leap—they say they can never identify with a female character to the extent of wanting to BE her, or even assuming some of her characteristics. Yet all of the women I’ve discussed this with said, Yes, of course they identify with male characters.

This means that, with a male character, women get a two-fer: they can identify with him, and they can find him sexy! That’s not to say I don’t read books with female protagonists, because I do. But it helped me to understand why I decided to make Sebastian St. Cyr the main character of my historical mystery series, rather than Kat Boleyn—which I almost did. My fellow blogeague Sphinx Ink has posted lists of her favorite characters, with one list for males, one list for females. Frankly, I’d have to struggle to come up with a list of ten female characters I’d list as favorites. But then, Sphinx Ink doesn’t seem drawn to the rebels, the wanderers, the bad boys—and girls—who walk on the wild side.

So how about it, all you guys out there: when you read about a smart, brave, kick-ass woman like Emma Peel, do you think, “I’d like to be like her”? Or do you just think, “Wow, smart hot chick in tight leathers”?


Anonymous said...

uhm, "smart, hot chick in tight leathers." Now that's interesting, about the identification thing. I might like the female character but I can't remember ever imagining myself as her.

Chap O'Keefe said...

How far can/do male readers identify with female characters? I was interested in your comment that none of the men you'd discussed this with seemed able to make the leap.

Progressing from this, we have the question: can male writers identify with female characters? This might bring the discussion over the past few days almost full circle -- did it not begin with: why have male writers created so few memorable female characters?

I don't doubt a few male writers have and can. There have even been male writers (hiding behind feminine pen-names) who have successfully produced Harlequin Mills & Boon romances, which are told strictly from the female POV of the central character. Males also write erotic novels under women's names for lines like the British Nexus series.

And what you might call the reverse is true. Women (usually hiding behind masculine pen-names) very successfully write genre westerns with male central characters and viewpoints.

The power of the imagination is marvellous!

cs harris said...

Yes, I think both men and women have successfully portrayed characters of the opposite gender. But you didn't answer my question, Chap! Do you as a reader identify with a female character? Imagine yourself as her?

Anonymous said...

>> Sphinx Ink doesn’t seem drawn
>> to the rebels, the wanderers,
>> the bad boys—and girls—who walk
>> on the wild side.

Ah, Sphinx Ink begs to differ. She IS drawn to rebels. Sphinx Ink believes you and she have mostly read different books, however, or when reading the same books, have seen the characters in differing lights, no doubt according to our differing temperaments. First, a few of Sphinx Ink's listed favorite characters are outright classic rebels. Mostly, however, they are discreet rebels--those who rebel in quiet rather than obvious ways, who work against the system from underneath rather than outside, who pursue their ideals of honor and duty in iconoclastic ways while appearing to toe the line. Sphinx Ink is fascinated by persons who can work from within the system to change the system to their liking, while appearing to follow its dictates. She finds such characters far more interesting than, say, James Dean sulking in a leather jacket with a cigarette hanging off his lower lip....although she admits the latter is an adolescently alluring image, she finds the soul of a rebel fascinating when it is hidden beneath conventional garb in a conventional occupation, being a silent revolutionary.

cs harris said...

You're right, oh Sphinxy One; quiet rebels can be fun to watch--Georgette Heyer did that type of heroine so well.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Two different answers to your two different questions, Candy.
As a reader/writer, I enjoy seeing things from a point of view that isn't the one I must operate from in real life. Call it recreational if you like.
As for imagining myself as BEING a female character, or even a fictional male one for that matter . . . no, I don't think so.
And surely there is no need to in the process of recognizing a character's feelings and aims and immersing oneself in a total sympathy with her/him.
I hope this gives you a better idea of how I use "identifying" when reading and writing fiction.