on character

[Note: I started writing this post late last year, during last semester’s English course at university. This means the chronology is a little off (i.e. none of this happened “the other day” – try the other month) but I liked the way it sounded, so I exercised that poetic licence of mine and left it as it had been started. Indulge me. LS]


My English lecturer put forth an opinion regarding the constitution of a ‘good’ literary character and, to be frank, it has been bothering me for days.

I am not used to this, this doubting of my professors. Those from the English department especially have been admirable, intelligent, articulate folk from whom I absorbed knowledge, wide-eyed and hungrily.

(Except for the one we called Goblin Man because we couldn’t remember his name and he had an unfortunately-shaped head; and the one we called Cat Lady because we were cruel and impatient things. But even Goblin Man made some good points and even Cat Lady knew what she was talking about if you could get her to focus for long enough. )

And this current guy, he’s not bad. He tends to interrupt himself and forgets the name of films he’s trying to reference, and he doesn’t seem capable of surmounting the technical difficulties that plague anyone trying to use a computer within the university network, and he makes grammatical and typographical errors in his powerpoint presentations, and he doesn’t cite his sources particularly well, which is a bit surprising/disappointing in an academic. But still, he’s a pretty good guy. I might risk being a little overly effusive here and say that I don’t hate him.

But then: we discuss “literary character.” What makes a good one, what makes a bad one. I’m studying Literary Theory (its complexity and pretentious nature indicated in the otherwise-useless capitalisation of its title) and now that we’ve slashed and hacked our way through the utter pile of bullshit that is New Criticism we’ve made it to Character.

Character. A construction or an indefinable substance. A person or a plot device. If you ever want to give yourself a headache (though I’m not sure why anyone would want that) just read Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination. Just quietly, in the middle of another sentence, my lecturer put forth this argument: that we, the readers, don’t want a particularly strong main characters because we want our characters to be relatable. In order for them to remain relatable, the author has to leave gaps: no strong, fully formed opinions, or we won’t be able to put ourselves in their shoes quite so easily.

Which I think it complete and utter crap.

If I want a completely substance-less character I can wear like a human-skin suit (ew) I’ll pick up a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure. Or Twilight.* If I want someone without an opinion… well, why would I want to read about someone like that? Is the assertion here that we all read to be mollified? To be told our own opinions over again? If you are looking for reassurance, it is my humble opinion that literature is the wrong place to go looking.

The whole argument seems off-base to me. If you’re striving for that kind of blandness, you’re not really looking to create a character: what you want is a narrator. Someone like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, who basically exists as a vehicle for the story, a petty functionary, a well-crafted plot device – Nick’s hi-jinks that fateful summer are glossed over in a few innuendo-laden sentences, but that doesn’t matter: we’re reading for Gatsby and Daisy. On the other hand, if you’re reading Catcher In The Rye, it’s all about Holden Caulfield. Holden is a character – a fully-fledged, idiosyncratic, contradictory, thoroughly-human mess. You might, (like my other half – it’s a source of tension in our relationship, I won’t deny it) think he’s a total douchebag, but regardless of how much you like him, Holden virtually exists in his own right. He is a character.

‘What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.’

– Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In The Rye

I don’t want a character that slips on and off like a pair of shoes. I don’t want someone bland, or easy; someone interchangeable and insignificant to the story they tell; I don’t want that awareness of artifice, that moment in a bad book when you resist the suspension of disbelief: why would they be there, oh how convenient, they just happened to be in a completely implausible place, able to overhear everything, yeah right. 

I want an argument. I want you to call my favourite character a douchebag and feel defensive, protective, when you do. I want someone who makes me angry. I want something who does ridiculous things not just to drive the plot forward but because you believe that character actually wants to do them. I don’t want my perspective: I want someone else’s. I don’t want to escape, I want to understand, discover, learn, fight, wonder. I want Fiction, not lies.

I want a character with Character.


*EASY-TARGET BURN. On a serious note, however, if you want a detailed explanation of why Bella Swan is fiction’s most boring, thoroughly-bland, so-called “character,” you should check out Jennifer Jenson and Anita Sarkeesian’s brilliant essay ‘Buffy vs. Bella: The Re-Emergence of the Archetypal Feminine in Vampire Stories.’