Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Why Some Readers Love Cardboard Characters

I love memorable characters, characters so brilliantly conceived and deftly rendered that they linger in my mind for years after I’ve first met them. But I’ve realized, lately, that not all readers are like me.

I can think of several bestselling suspense and mystery writers who provide their fans with an incredibly thin, colorless husband-and-wife team. And don’t get me started on Dan Brown’s characters. But do the fans of these writers complain? No. They gush about how “wonderful” their favorite writer’s characters are. I used to go, “Huh?” But now, I think I get it.

You see, there’s a flip side to creating memorable, deftly rendered characters. The more individualistic your story people are, the more artfully delineated their likes and dislikes, faults and virtues, habits and idiosyncrasies, the more likely it is that some of your readers will go, “I don’t like this character. In fact, I hate this character, and I don’t want to read about him.” Think of the visitor to this blog who loves Scarlett O’Hara—and the one who hates her. Scarlett is definitely a memorable character. Endearing to everyone? No.

A well-delineated character presents us with a personality we react to, for good or ill. But a cardboard character is essentially a blank slate, a movie screen onto which certain kinds of readers seem to project their own likes and dislikes. The author has put nothing there to get in their way. Thus, when a reader says she loves Bestseller X’s characters, what she’s really saying is that she loves the way she imagines those characters to be.

Thin, undeveloped characters drive me nuts. One of the main things I read for, is the joy of experiencing people like Huck Finn, and Francis Crawford, and Dave Robicheaux. But when I look at the bestseller lists, I sometimes fear we’re in the minority.


Anonymous said...

This immediately reminded me of a quotation from Leslie Charteris, the author of the Saint saga. I had to dig out my copy of the First Saint Omnibus to find it:

"I have been trying to make a picture of a man. Changing, yes. Developing, I hope. Fantastic, improbable--perhaps. Quite worthless, quite irritating, if you feel that way. Or a slightly cockeyed ideal, if you feel differently. It doesn't matter so much, so long as you feel that you would recognise him if you met him tomorrow."

That's the kind of character I admire, even the ones I wouldn't like if I actually got to meet them. Also note that it's been fifteen years since I read Gone with the Wind, and I still feel quite strongly about Scarlett; she definitely made an impression.

cs harris said...

Great quote! And he did succeed, didn't he? (Or is it a she? I read the Saint voraciously as a teenager, but now I can't remember!)

Anonymous said...

I will continue to read about characters I don't like if they are well drawn and put into interesting circumstances. For example, I couldn't stand the character of Thomas Covenent in Stephen Donaldson's series but I read six books about him.

Chap O'Keefe said...

A superb post. And the quote from (Mr) Charteris is very apposite. The "Robin Hood of modern crime" is largely remembered today through the long, long TV series starring Roger Moore. The books, especially the early ones from the 1930s, are well worth hunting down, however. Charteris had a smooth, droll style to his writing. But as a character Simon Templar was always just a bit too large for life. Not the kind of person I would ever expect to meet tomorrow! Excellent for escapist reading though. And some of us still do try to create such fantastic (as in fanciful) rebel types. I know I do -- particularly with Misfit Lil, to a lesser extent with ex-Pinkerton Joshua Dillard.

Ruthie Black naked said...

True, Sweetie.
Nice blog!
People say I immitate SCARLETT O'HARA, since we're both bitches. But I'm as genuine as she was, since we were from the same neck of the Georgia woods, and we both were stars of novels.
I saw MARGARET MITCHELL meet her tragic death on the sidewalk outside the Fox theater in 1949. (The theater in Atlanta where the movie GONE WITH THE WIND had premiered). A taxi hit her as she was crossing the street, looking up at the theater's marquee where her name was displayed prominently. I tried to warm her of the taxi, but she didn't seem to hear me.