Friday, November 16, 2012

Top 10 Characteristics Characters Can't Have

Top 10 Characteristics a hero or heroine cannot possibly support in modern fiction:


.... Uhm. Let's see.

1. Being a spacious walk in asshole who also has leprosy.

Oh. Wait. Nope. Clearly that can be made to work. It's been done. Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series. Though, notably, readers either love those books, or burn them.

Okay. Can we just agree that if someone can write a best-selling series about a leper who defines jerk, there's really nothing off limits? I could see where trying to write a pedophile as a sympathetic hero might be a tall order, but as sure as I say it can't be done, someone will do it. Disturbing? Yep. And I wouldn't be interested in reading it in the least, but that's not the point. Someone, somewhere would find it interesting, whether from a technique standpoint, or because the reader is a fellow pedophile.

Honestly, I do believe there are characteristics that we as writers cannot give our heros and heroines. Those are the characteristics we ourselves have no empathy for. We're limited by our imaginations. We're limited by the fact that every human being on the planet is trapped inside his or her own head. Even though we are a social species and we do have some talent for reading emotion in other people's faces, the fact remains that we cannot experience what someone else has. Every individual grows up with a unique perspective - a filter no one else can duplicate. That means that we have to admit that every single one of our characters is an aspect of ourselves - in that we can use imagination and empathy to put ourselves in someone else's shoes, but emotional response must come from through us, through our unique filter. This isn't a bad thing. Not in the least. It actually serves writers and actors and performers of every kind, but that's another post.

It's simply that many of us have limits. Think of that ONE genre you would never read, much less write. Then there's the TV show, Dexter. It's been mentioned already this week. I stand in awe of the writers who can make a psychopathic serial killer so sympathetic. He's such a stranger in the strange land of our normal lives. I feel bad for him. It's brilliant stuff. I don't want to write it because I don't want to have to tap into the portion of my psyche that would let me write that character. That's my own personal limitation. Some other writer will see that challenge as a terrific adventure. And that's the beauty of this. Each of us wants to write interesting characters who resonate emotionally. That guarantees the full spectrum of human experience.

Wrapping back to Stephen Donaldson, I saw an interview with him. The interviewer asked him what it was like writing the Thomas Covenant series. He said, "Torture." He went on to say that it wasn't fun. It wasn't pleasant. He didn't like writing the series, but he HAD to write the books. He had no choice.

I wonder if someone told him he couldn't write a characater like Thomas Covenant and then he couldn't resist the challenge. I know that I'm like that. Fastest way to get me to do something is to tell me I can't. So I wonder. How many of the supposed character taboos have been broken simply because someone said, 'You can't do that!'


  1. Oh, let's try that out:
    I bet you can't write a book about a heroic pig who saves the world from hordes of zombies.

    1. ...You know. I think i could. A short story, definitely. A whole novel? That I don't know - if only because it seems to me that pigs in general are pretty much perfect, suffer remarkably little self-doubt and therefore, don't require much in the way of character arc. What would need to change, right? Chronicling he struggle to solve the zombie problem? That could certainly be done.

    2. I agree with your accurate description of pigs, but still say I don't think you can do it until I've read the story :-p

  2. Don't forget the Pig's friend the Sheep ;)

  3. I noticed a lot of PNR vampire heroes only feed from "bad" guys. It is hard to convince a woman to love you if you kill Bob the postman... so that might be a characteristic most authors won't give a hero vamp... indiscriminate feeding.