5.14.2012

His Mother's Eyes: The Making of Lovable Characters

Source.
One can know a man from his laugh, and if you like a man's laugh before you know anything of him, you may confidently say that he is a good man. 
~Fyodor Dostoevsky

How do we create lovable characters?
~Masha

In one sense, Masha answered her own question well enough that I don't necessarily have to say anything. Quod vide:
When we write, we have to start with love - by forming a character, knowing him, loving him, and then sharing him with the world, not as a creature out of our own imagination, but as a friend, a child - proud of who he is, and confident in his ability to find love on his own, even amid hostility, misunderstanding, and his own inevitable flaws.
But that wasn't all she said. I want to interact with that comment, but before I do, let me interact with this:
I don't feel the friendship towards [Harry Potter] that I feel toward [Dmitri Karamazov].... Perhaps in part because of the writer's skill - it's unfair to compare Dostoevsky, whose greatest strength is in his characters, and Rowling - but more likely it's a difference of presentation. Rowling labels Harry as a hero, with a strong heart and an deep ability to love, so the flaws are jarring and harder for me to overlook. Mitya is shown as something of a wretch, his flaws blend into the background and his virtues stand out to me.  But each reader's response will be different.... Jenna, I know, is a friend of Harry's, and I can't help but see him in a better light for that friendship. It helps characters to have good friends on the outside, in order to allow them a chance to, as Jenna says, "become real enough to speak to people of flesh and blood".
If Masha intended to open the way for me to speak warmly of a beloved character, I shan't tell her nay. Now, first, I understand and appreciate her comments. In particular, I like the unfortunate Mitya Karamazov and felt bad for him as I read his story; I just never thought much about him as he was totally overshadowed for me by his little brother Alyosha, whom I adored quite passionately. (Gotta love those gentle-hearted ex-monks. I married one.) So Masha's presentation of him came as a surprise, but a delightful one; it reminded me that I did care about Mitya.

But Harry—I forgive Harry his failures for two reasons. One: I loved him with my whole heart by the time he was eating a hamburger with Hagrid on his eleventh birthday. Comparatively few protagonists have inspired that extreme level of attachment out of me, and some of that has to do with the fact that he suffered so much. Torture a reasonably good-natured character, and all my underutilized mother-instinct kicks in hard.

The second reason is that Harry grows out of his primary faults. Honestly, I'd have liked him far less overall had he ended the final book with his hatreds intact. Even I, much as I empathized with him, had moments where I distanced myself from his emotions; moments where he expressed hatred, or used a curse he didn't know the meaning of, or laughed at someone's suffering. Harry, in those moments, was a human hero showing his weakness. To walk the final path through The Forest Again to King's Cross, he had to give that over, to show compassion to everyone he once claimed to hate. He had a latent gift for love, but he had to nurture and develop it, just as we must nurture and develop our own—and therein lies further sympathy.

So, what do Harry and Mitya offer those of us trying to create our own characters?

Certain practical things do help a fictional character, things both Harry and Mitya display at least sometimes. Emotional believability. Being a little bit of an underdog. Going through honest-to-goodness hard times, and coming out stronger for them. Avoiding certain problems, the most deadly of which—in the postmodern era at least—is probably arrogance. Acting and/or thinking in step with the spirit (not necessarily the particulars) of the reader's day and age. Not getting everything right all the time. And, naturally, having the characters themselves possess the quality of empathy.

For another example: the most sympathetic character I've ever come across, Ender Wiggin, nails all of those in the first few pages of his story.

Masha is right, however, that reader response plays a role. No matter how brilliant a writer is, there will always be someone who "doesn't get it." I've heard The Brothers Karamazov called the greatest novel ever written, yet I found it meandering, unresolved, and difficult to invest in beyond my sympathy for Alyosha. The Harry Potter series is quite possibly the most universally enjoyed long fiction work of our day, yet Masha isn't the only one who was left cold by the story.

For us writers, perhaps it's sort of like a mother's realization that no matter what she says or does, not everyone in the world will love her baby. She may defend her child; she may teach him to present himself in a generally acceptable manner; she may thank Heaven he was given to her, who loves him, instead of to his enemy. But she cannot change the way the world perceives him. To a certain extent, she cannot even change him, but only help him shape himself.

But as a mother is proud of her child despite his own failures and the unfriendliness of others, we can be proud of the characters in whom we've invested heart, soul, and body. It's my favorite part about writing. I can't wait to introduce you all to my daughters and my sons.

6 comments:

  1. It is one of the best parts of writing, isn't it!
    I Loved your defense of Harry, it was so loving, but not blind. And you're right, emotional believability is an essential in forming an attachment to any character..it's sort of a scary thought - sending our babies out in the world to be picked apart, judged, and found wanting by critics..very nice response!

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    1. Thanks, Masha! I'm glad you liked it. It was fun having a chance to talk about Harry like that. :)

      Looking forward to meeting some of your character-children, someday!

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  2. "Gotta love those gentle-hearted ex-monks. I married one." That right there sounds like a good story worth writing about!

    Also, your last post including Perlman playing Vieuxtemps brought back funny, albeit awkward memories. My parents took us to hear Perlman at a local college when I was about eight. I don't remember what he played. I do remember trying to get into the ladies room at intermission and facing the inevitable across-the-lobby line. My mother had sung in that venue as a student at the college so she knew the building and led me to a spare restroom through a side door. Crisis averted, I emerged to find myself face-to-face with the cummerbund of a big man in a tuxedo, while several staff fluttered around gasping "what are you DOING back here?" Meanwhile my Mom fluttered back with something apologetic while throwing in comments about "thank you so much...so lovely...my children's first violin concert...." I had no clue what was going on, or that I'd just racked up my one claim to musical fame: I accidentally stole Itzhak Perlman's restroom.

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    1. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh. My. Goodness. That story is AWESOME.

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  3. Meeting & marrying an ex-monk is pretty amazing. What's even more amazing is meeting & marrying an ex-monk who is still an orthodox Catholic. ;)

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    1. This is true!

      It helps that, like Alyosha if I remember correctly, he had only passed a postulancy and part of a novitiate and never taken full vows. So it wasn't a renunciation, just a nope, this isn't the life for me. :)

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