Spectacular Characters in Flawed Novels

Jeff VanderMeer • April 28th, 2009 @ 9:27 am • Writing Tips

Last night on Facebook, in response to a book I just read (can’t tell you what it is until review is done), I wrote, “I think it’s more than possible that a writer can be gifted with creating an amazing character and then, sadly, in a very real way for the reader undermine and betray that creation.”

Excerpts from the discussion that followed…

Jennifer
Ah. I had a similar experience a while ago. I had to stop reading, because it seemed the protagonist had acted out of character in order for the plot to be complicated. …In my case, it was the first of — —-’ forensic procedurals. I can’t remember the name offhand. The mystery really hooked me, and I liked the main character. But the b-plot complications seemed really forced to me.

Jeff
Usually my favorite characters, like the narrator of Geek Love, tend to naturally bring strands of subplot and complication with them. But I can understand how you can lose nerve, feel you have to force it. But I think a great character creates his or her own rules because the reader will accept more.

Jenny Davidson
Venerable 19th-century character (not, however, spectacular!) brutalized by novelist’s choices: Little Nell. I still feel slightly mad about the choices Jonathan Franzen made for Denise in _The Corrections_ – I think this falls under the sort of rubric you’ve devised. Kay Scarpetta of late Patricia Cornwell is a betrayal of Kay Scarpetta of the first few books (it is very difficult, BTW, to bring a major character back from the dead without losing the reader’s confidence in the integrity of the fictional world…)

Gene
Once a character is real, it can be betrayed like any other person, is the problem.

Rhys
What better why to continue to exert control over that character than to betray it — to stop it falling completely under the influence of the reader? That’s probably why authors do that. Smashing the crockery is one way of ‘reclaiming’ it. To prevent it being taken away…Mind you, I’m not like the rest of you. I prefer complexity to believability… As for ‘spectacular characters in flawed novels’ I’m very fond of Captain Alatriste — he’s taciturn, ruthless, compassionate, humourless, jaded, vibrant — but I have doubts about the novels he appears in.

Paul
This, in a nutshell, is my beef with the novels of KJ Parker.

Jeff
Personally, I think complexity builds believability. But I think what Rhys is driving at is that there’s a kind of complexity to characters not meant to be three-dimensional in the traditional sense–a complexity that has nothing to do with “believability” per se. But that’s for a stylized approach to … Read Morefiction. Something I love as well, but the characterization in such stories and novels isn’t usually the kind where you fall deeply in love with the character.

Gene
“Believability” is subjective and culture-bound, though, once you get past basic humanoid primate concerns such as breathing or voting a partisan ticket. (ook) By “surprises that seem not to resonate” I meant, simply, new character traits that seem to go against older, established ones. Such as if Sherlock Holmes suddenly became a party animal; it would require explanation to make it believable in context, and would certainly not seem to resonate with his known character — until you learn it is a ploy to draw out Inspector Lestrade’s hidden hooker identity

Jeff
“Believability” is tied as much to the cultural context set out in the fiction as in the eye of the beholder. You can make the reader believe anything if you contextualize it correctly. Or, rather, the majority of readers will come to similar if not identical conclusions. What you can’t get away with is coincidence that continually helps the … protagonist or advances the plot, or setting up a smart character who makes consistently stupid decisions that clearly are made by the author not the character in order to advance the plot. Again, talking about trad approaches to fiction. Rhys doesn’t use trad approaches, just trad skins, like seeming folktales. The Sherlock Holmes example is an example of a plot device not a character device, I think.

One Response to “Spectacular Characters in Flawed Novels”

  1. fritz freiheit.com blog » Link dump says:

    [...] Ecstatic Days ? Blog Archive ? Spectacular Characters in Flawed Novels (Reading,Writing,Character) [...]

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