Recently, I was working on a book I’ve been writing tentatively called “Limbo” and I came to the point where I decided I was the worst writer in the world and no one would care about the characters I’ve created because they are boring, boring, boring. Talking about a crisis of confidence!
As I thought about this issue further, it led me to ask, what is it about the characters in a book that will lead a reader to care about them? For instance, Catharine and Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights”—why do we care about them? Cal and Aron in “East of Eden”—why do we get caught up in their stories?
Like many people, I took one of my daughters on a road trip to North Carolina to drop her off at her college. It was an eleven hour trip and on the way back I listened to an audiobook I had purchased entitled “In a Dark, Dark Wood” by Ruth Ware. I was so caught up in the story that even though I’d arrived home after eleven hours of driving, I still sat in my car listening to the book for an additional hour because I felt compelled to hear the whole story and find out what happened to the characters in the end.
Why do readers like me feel so strongly about the fantasy characters they encounter in books that they will go out of their way to find out what happens to them?
For an answer to that question I turned immediately to the internet and googled the question. Would you believe that in response I received 2.5 million responses. Clearly, I am not the first person who has been intrigued by this question! Although, there is no way that I am going to plow through 2.5 million articles, I will share with you the wisdom provided in the first ten!
Apparently, the “go to” person among scholars in regard to this area of inquiry is Blakey Vermeule who wrote a highly regarded book on the subject entitled “Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?” Ms. Vermeule essentially bad mouths the whole enterprise of getting involved in literary productions stating that it has no evolutionary value whatsoever. In fact she states, “caring about strangers—not just strangers but fictional strangers—seems at best a waste of time and at worst a form of madness.”
Nonetheless, practically all of us do! Why? Because pretty much, the human brain is conditioned to view the conflicts and difficulties of life within the context of narrative. Thus, if individuals seek to resolve those conflicts or find solutions to their difficulties, they are more likely to find satisfactory results within the context of some kind of storytelling. Apparently, even when dealing with inanimate objects, human beings tend to project a personality onto those objects and see them within that context.
In the same way that our eyes will tend to create structure and specific images out of even the most random visual detail, i.e. clouds, our minds tend to create fictional characters and situations out of the social interactions that surround us as a means to come to terms with the challenges they present.
Abby Norman, in “The Psychology of Fandom” states that it all comes down to that fundamental human capacity for empathy, a capacity that she states resides in the right supra marginal gyrus of the brain. Personally, I tend to be somewhat skeptical of attempts to locate any particular aspect of human character within a particular segment of the brain, but that’s just me. I come from a different generation that was all about soul, not about the brain, so you can ignore my views if you’d like. I’m just passing along the info.
Ms. Norman states that if the gyrus gets damaged, subjects are much less capable of experiencing empathy necessary to appreciating a work of literature.
In addition, according to Ms. Norman, in real life our capacity for empathy arises from the accrual of information that we obtain about other people. For instance we create the capacity for empathy through our ability to see physically the expressions on a person’s face and to touch, hug, or hold and smell another person. Also, when it comes to another person, over a period of time, through repeated encounters, we begin to put together a complete picture of who that person is from the accumulation of shared conversations and experiences we have with that other person.
In fiction, we are limited to the written word, and yet even that limited medium has the ability to recreate all the thoughts and feelings we have about real people and apply them to fictional ones, simply through descriptive detail. Such is the remarkable nature of the human mind.
Furthermore, what literature does for people is that it frees them to explore an extraordinary reach of emotional, physical, and social territory that they would otherwise be precluded from experiencing based upon their ethnic, economic, and social circumstances. There is no earthly equivalent to the freedom that you can experience when reading books—intellectually, emotionally, socially, visually, and geographically. Simply this circumstance can unlock an extraordinary depth of feeling for and commitment to individuals who are, in the end, entirely fictional characters living in entirely fictional worlds.
Still, granted all that, what is it that keeps us reading? Why would I sit in my car in the dark for an additional hour after a whole day of driving so that I could get to the end of my precious audiobook?
Simply put, the answer is, we all want to know “who done it!” We want the questions posed, answered. We want the protagonist put at risk, restored to safety. We want the secret, what ever it is, to come out finally into the light of day. We want the heroine married. We want the fortune found. We want the dead buried.
In many respects, no matter how dull the prose, no matter how hackneyed the metaphors, no matter how silly the characters, we as readers are ready to plow through the mud of bad writing as long as the tickle of the dilemma gets scratched in the end. It’s sad to say so, but it is the truth. Quality narrative is not half as important as it is chalked up to be. If you want verification of that, just take a few moments to read a Harry Potter book by J.K. Rowling!
Ultimately, what this means is that we tend to care more about fictional characters who inhabit engrossing and engaging dilemmas. The lives they live, the problems they have, the challenges they face are for more important than who they are. In fact, the more neutral a character is, the more universal a character is, the more easy it will be for any person, any reader to slip into their shoes and inhabit them.
What this means is that character is not half as important as plot, and it also means that as long as you have sketched out the general stick figure of a personality, you are probably doing OK as a novel writer, particularly in regard to romance novels and chiclit, I would say. This should be reassuring to writers like me who worry about whether they have created characters that will attract the care and concern of their audiences.