To effectively create fictional characters, it is necessary to be an observer. Writers study people—their physical appearance, mannerisms, speech patterns, personalities, life experiences, motivations, and resulting actions. A writer can be inspired by a particular individual, or he/she might combine aspects of several people to create one character.
As book-readers and TV-and-film viewers, we crave a connection with characters. We want to relate to these people, to understand them, to admire them, to give them our sympathy and cheer them on. We want their problems to be resolved in a happy or semi-happy ending. And this makes sense. Why would anyone invest hours of valuable time in a character they don’t completely like?
Actually, we often do that very thing. And we should.
While crafting characters, writers do not necessarily strive for pure likeability—nor should they. Realistic fiction is (for the most part) a reflection of true life—and in life, nobody is perfect. People have flaws. Even the kindest, sweetest, most amazingly charitable person has his or her moments of selfishness and envy. Anyone who spends time observing human beings—or just living on Earth—understands that no one is perpetually “nice.” And when creating realistic fiction, it is even more important to understand that there are reasons behind people’s imperfections.
Although writers do not always create characters that would win a popularity contest, they usually hope their characters will be seen as sympathetic. Complex. Authentic. A reader might not care for a certain character—but it is crucial that, at some point in the narrative, a solid reason for the character’s negative behavior is revealed and evokes both compassion and understanding.
In fiction, the writer and reader both want to get inside a character’s mind. And when they do, they might find a lot of warm sunshine. But if they dig deep enough, they’ll also find cold and shadowy corners. It is this blend of darkness and light that forms a nuanced character and creates good fiction. One of the main points of fiction is to visit someone else’s consciousness, where we can fully understand his/her circumstances, emotions, and the reasons behind his/her choices.
There are many non-villain characters in TV, film, and literature who aren’t persistently kind and virtuous and morally upstanding, yet we want to get to know them and hear their stories. We want to experience their imperfect lives. Very often, it is flawed characters’ negative traits that draw us to them. We might relate to their downfalls and are intrigued to discover what parts of their life experience have damaged them. Undoubtedly, we want our characters to have many positive qualities—but a 100% angelic, confident, constantly-smiling character doesn’t fit into good fiction. It would be a plastic caricature.
Consider Don Draper of Mad Men. The series and Don were a big hit—but is he a likeable character? Is he the guy on the white horse who does everything right?
Hardly. Don has his positive points—he’s handsome, he’s smart, he’s stylish and successful and exciting. He does the right thing once in a while. But Don also makes lots of horrible mistakes—like stealing a dead man’s identity, cheating on his wife, and unceremoniously dumping his supportive girlfriend to marry his secretary. Still, did his questionable choices make the audience tune out? Did people stop watching Mad Men because its protagonist is shady?
Not at all. Viewers might not have always approved of Don, but they stuck with him as the writers slowly and skillfully revealed his backstory, showing how his past created the man he became—for better or worse.
Recently, a character with even deeper moral ambiguity captured positive attention. The Night Of series on HBO introduced Nasir “Naz” Khan, a college student from Queens, New York who is accused of brutally murdering a mysterious young woman named Andrea.
Initially, it seems certain that Naz has been unjustly accused. His parents are hardworking immigrants from Pakistan, he lives at home with his family in accordance with cultural standards, and he claims that the night he spent with Andrea was only his second intimate experience. He looks clean, innocent, incapable of causing the bloody massacre that was this girl’s death. Yes, he made mistakes that night—taking his father’s cab without permission, doing drugs with Andrea, and fleeing the scene of the crime. Like all fictional characters that mirror reality, Naz has flaws. And to the credit of the show’s writers, these flaws are presented in a way that portray Naz as highly sympathetic. It’s easy to put ourselves in his shoes.
But as the story progresses, surprising facts about Naz’s past are revealed. He makes devastatingly poor choices. He quickly falls into prison life, which sparks the question of whether he is adapting to survive or if frightening tendencies have lurked inside him all along.
His innocence now seems murky to the audience and to other characters, who are adversely affected by what Naz is accused of doing. This affects several of those characters’ likeability—especially Naz’s mother, who walks out of the courtroom during his trial and eventually refuses to take his phone calls. Some viewers might turn against a mother who ditches her son in his worst hour, but this character—and all of the others—are written so effectively that it is hard to lose sympathy for them.
Mrs. Khan has to pawn prized possessions to finance Naz’s defense; she loses her job and is reduced to cleaning toilets for pay; and her entire family is blamed for Naz allegedly bringing shame upon their ethnicity. Her suffering, plus the information that comes to light at the trial, makes his mother’s heartbreaking betrayal understandable. And even though Naz becomes a character with an extremely uncertain moral code, he is still difficult to abandon. After all, viewers know more about Naz’s struggle than his mother does.
Another way that an intensely flawed character can evoke sympathy is through redemption. For example, in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, the main character (Celie) endures terrible abuse from her husband, Albert. He displays almost no sympathetic qualities and seems to deserve nothing but hatred. Eventually, however, Albert recognizes his sins and quietly orchestrates Celie’s reunion with her long-lost sister and the children that were taken from Celie years ago. Throughout The Color Purple, it feels implausible that Albert could ever deserve a speck of compassion—but remarkably, at the end of the story, he does.
The brilliance of The Color Purple, The Night Of, Mad Men, and other works of fiction that entice us to invest time in flawed characters is that we’re given an opportunity to see why they do what they do. Or maybe they somehow make up for their crimes. We keep reading or watching because we come to understand the reasons behind characters’ questionable choices. We’re with them from the beginning, we walk rough roads with them, and we know what happened in the past to make them the way they are now. So we stick with them instead of tuning out or closing the book.
Lorraine Zago Rosenthal is the author of OTHER WORDS FOR LOVE (Random House/Delacorte Press), NEW MONEY and its sequel, INDEPENDENTLY WEALTHY (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne Books). INDEPENDENTLY WEALTHY was included in People Magazine’s weekly “Best Books” feature, “People Picks: A Dozen Cool Things to See, Hear, Read and Download this Week.”
Lorraine was born and raised in New York City and is a graduate of the University of South Florida. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Master’s degrees in Education and English.
Find out more about her on her website http://lorraine-zago-rosenthal.blogspot.com
Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LorraineZago
Category: How To and Tips