December 10, 2019

Common Misconceptions About Character

Characters are the heart and soul of any story, so it makes sense that those of us who write or analyze stories focus much of our time on the ins and outs of character and characterization. Yet a lot of this analysis ignores certain types of storytelling, unfairly idealizing some story and character types over others. Worse than that, even, is that which misunderstands the relationship between an author and their characters. I've noticed three particular misconceptions which crop up the most, and I have a theory as to where they come from (Hint: it's moralism!).

Misconception 1: Character Driven Stories are Better than Plot Driven Stories

Character driven stories are those where the characters have some goal or desire and work to achieve it; the plot is generated by the characters’ choices. Plot driven stories are those where events happen and the characters have to react to them; the plot is also generated by characters’ choices. If the characters didn't make decisions, they wouldn't be characters! So what's the difference?

In character driven stories, there’s a sense of urgency that can be appealing. What is that character willing to do to get what they want? Why do they want it? Will they get it, or learn that perhaps there are things more important than their goals?

For plot driven stories, it’s interesting to see what the characters do when things are thrown at them. How will they get out of this scrape? Why do they react this way vs that way? Can they really beat such insurmountable odds?

I think the root of the misconception that character driven stories are superior is based largely on bias against certain genres. Literary fiction tends to be heavily character driven, in that not a lot happens other than the characters making choices. Genre fiction like fantasy and sci-fi are mixed, where inciting incidents kick off the plots and random encounters along with choices made by the characters keep it going. Comedy, adventure, and horror are at the far extreme, usually totally driven by plot and circumstance rather than character goals. Much of the derision of plot driven stories is genre bigotry in disguise.

Both types of stories have something to offer us, and it’s rare to find a work of fiction that is only driven by characters or only driven by plot. Most stories mix them, to great success. People need to get off their high horses and focus on writing the best characters they can, whether they drive or react to the plot.

Misconception 2: Dynamic Characters are Better than Static Characters

Speaking of writing the best character, clearly that means writing a dynamic character who learns and grows over the course of the story, right? Wrong! Static characters have their place, just as plot driven stories have theirs.

First of all, a story is not the same thing as a life. While we all do grow and change over time, a story is a window into a particular time, through a particular point of view. Some characters have gotten their changing out of the way in the backstory. Others serve as constants for the other characters to rely on. It would be weird if every character, including the side characters and villains, all changed by the end of the story, because this isn’t necessarily their story, not the beginning of it, not the end of it, not the time when they happened to do their changing.

But what about protagonists? Surely they must undergo some sort of transformation, right? It depends on the character, and the story, and—you guessed it—the genre. Take cozy mysteries, or slice-of-life, or comedy. We don’t want Sherlock Holmes or Yotsuba or Bertie Wooster to change and grow; that’s not the point of their stories or their characters. We want to come back to those books, again and again, and know exactly who's waiting for us.

Even genres that generally have dynamic protagonists don’t require them. Take Lina Inverse, of the fantasy series Slayers, who is just as gluttonous, greedy, and wild in Season One, Episode One as she is in the finale of the fifth season, made fourteen years later. What about Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird? Though she slightly changes over the course of the story, mostly in how she perceives her father and Boo Radley, it’s more important for her to be the static viewpoint character through whose innocent eyes we see what’s happening in Maycomb County. 

Again, there is a place for both static and dynamic characters. As long as they are each well-developed and serve their stories, it doesn’t matter if they change or not.

Misconception 3: Nothing You Make a Character Do is Out-of-Character

I don't even know where to start with this one. No, wait, I do: reductio-ad absurdum. If Javert, from Les Miserables, decided to join the Thenardiers in their skullduggery rather than either accepting Valjean's mercy or jumping to his death, that would be out-of-character. If Uncle Vernon, apropos of nothing, warmly embraced Harry and said that he had come to truly accept him as his son, and that he had been misguided all these years and seen the light, that would be out-of-character. If Luke Skywalker were to not see and seek the good in some relative of his and instead decided to kill that relative off before they could go full Dark Side, that would be out-of-character (ahem... AHEM!!!).

Just because you are the writer does not mean you can do whatever you want with the characters. If that were true, they wouldn't be characters, but rather cardboard cut-outs that you cause to do random actions and say random things. Characters are supposed to represent real people, and real people act a certain way from situation to situation and over the course of time. Past behavior predicts future behavior.

That's not to say people can't change, for weal or woe, but that usually happens in one of three ways. First, they change over time, as dynamic characters are wont to do. Second, they have a "road to Damascus" moment; much like miracles, these tend to be considered deus-ex-machina and are thus rarely employed in fiction. I would say these usually happen when character A does some act of kindness or sacrifice for character B, and B is struck by this and realizes they must change their ways (again, for weal or for woe; Javert gets such an act of kindness from Valjean, but instead of accepting it he chooses to kill himself rather than live in Valjean's world of mercy. What a guy!).

Finally, there are stressors. These might be the character losing their job, or getting betrayed, or having someone close to them die, or breaking up with a long-time love. If you’ve heard the term before, it’s likely from the context of criminology; stressors are often what precipitate a violent crime. If a kind, sweet character suddenly goes bad, maybe it's due to a string of stressors. Notice I said a string; you have to have some sort of build up for a character to really go off their rocker or it will feel like it came out of nowhere. For a crash course in this sort of in-character change, I recommend Tangled: The Series, which artfully depicts not one, but two characters' roads to perdition in unexpected but understandable ways. These kinds of stressors should feel like the final straw in the bale that broke the camel's back.

For all of these changesgradual, road-to-Damascus, or stressorsthe change itself still needs to be in-character, which means that the writers need to know who their characters are and what makes them tick. If this villain is shown an unprecedented act of kindness, will they immediately forsake their plans, start going easier on their own minions, or withdraw for a while to think? It might be that only one of those courses of action would be in-character for that particular person. If this character's loved one is murdered, is that enough to make them go on a revenge spree? And are the particulars of who is caught in that revenge spree in-character?

I submit that Hawkeye killing criminals in Avengers: Endgame is in-characterhe's already a hero, so he's still technically protecting innocent people, even if that means mowing down bad guys who "should" have been killed in the Snap. It makes sense, given who he is and where he's coming from. I also submit that Katniss agreeing to a final Hunger Games for the Capital's children in Catching Fire was out-of-character. She had seen what those death games were like first hand, especially for little kids like Rue, and it doesn't make senseeven if her sister was murderedfor her to do a 180 and throw away everything she stood for. Had she been shown, earlier on, to not care about the lives of Capital citizens, or to have a dehumanizing or vengeful streak, I could see it. But she didn't, so her sudden bloodlust came out of left field. I also can't accept the murder of her sister as the last in a line of stressors becausedespite the horrors Katniss had seen inflicted on the people of the Districtsthe Capital also did that to their own citizens. It is made abundantly clear that the Capital is willing to murder their own people (Katniss witnesses this first hand as she makes her way through the Capital streets), so it doesn't fit for Katniss to choose further violence towards the people she has seen being slaughtered by the very people she is fighting. Her action (and, by the by, Haymitch's going along with it) felt startlingly out-of-character.

The Moral of the Story

Going back to the above example, if Katniss's actions were so out of the blue, why did Suzanne Collins write them that way, rather than choosing another route? I think it's fair to say her intention was to underline the horrors of war and what it does to people, which... is a bit patronizing. The entire Hunger Games Trilogy was about the horrors of war. We saw children forced to kill each other. We saw an entire district reduced to rubble. We saw people melting in the Capital A-bomb-style. To then feel the need to have Katnisswho by this point is already so hardened by what's happened to her that she barely blinks at the violence around hergive up everything she has fought for and become like the very evil she has been fighting seems to be hitting us over the head. But that story needed a moral, and Collins really, really, really wanted to make sure we got it.

And that is perhaps the greatest misconception of all, and the root of the other three: the ardent insistence that stories need to teach a moral. Some of you might balk at this, saying, perhaps, that modernism and post modernism have gotten rid of the whole idea of "the moral of the story", but they didn't. They just changed what the morals were. True, early novels is England and America had a puritanical streak, and some people, back in the day, insisted that stories teach lessons about religion, and virtue, and the dangers of a life of debauchery. Truly, fewer and fewer stories, as the years went on, dealt with these particular topics, but those morals were subsequently replaced with lessons about feminism, and representation, and the dangers of war and racism. Before any one flips their lid, they should know that I support all of those morals: I love religion and virtue and feminism, and am really not keen on war, racism, debauchery and such. But I'm really not keen on being preached at in books

Obviously, not all, or even most, books are preachy. They weren't way back in the day and they aren't now. And yet, there seems to be a sneering favoritism for books that offer some sort of moral over those that are, frankly, just fun and entertaining. Books where characters make choicesmoral choices, though they aren't always explicitly called thatare seen as superior to books where people respond to the plot by going on adventures or getting into scrapes. Dynamic characters who changeby either learning lessons and growing as people or, contrarily, losing themselves to a life of vice and sin (even if we no longer describe it as such)are so much better than those silly characters who simple exist, neither rising to the heights of heaven nor descending to the depths of hell, with nothing to teach their audience about where life might take you. Nothing you make your characters do is out-of-character, because they don't represent people but instead archetypes and Vice and Virtue and whatever else you need to preachUh, I mean tellyour story.

Again, I'm not against stories having morals; heck, I'm one of those last few weirdos who can't stand books that have an immoral message. What many people don't understand, though, is that there is a vast and cavernous difference between an immoral story and an amoral story, and that amoral stories, be they wacky comedies, cute slice-of-lifes, puzzling mysteries, or tales of derring-do, are not bad, nor even inferior to other stories. They are not inferior for offering fun, plot driven stories, nor for having constant, static characters. They are not inferior for not having a moral. In fact, I submit that any random amoral story with well-developed characters is superior to a "moral" storybe they old morals or newwhere the author forces the cast to act painfully out-of-character in order to beat us over the head with a message.

Basically, the point of a story isn't to teach something, at least, not necessarily. The point of a story is to be true to itself. That might mean having some deep message, or it might mean being thoroughly entertaining, or maybe both. Characters, similarly, should be true to whatever story they find themselves in. As I said at the beginning of this post, characters are the heart and soul of any story, and I mean any story: plot- or character-driven, dynamic or static, moral or amoral.

And those, dear readers, are my thoughts on character.

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