Sunday, 21 April 2013

Liking books, TV shows and movies: Characters

Whether or not I liked a book, a movie, or a TV show, I like to try to understand why I felt that way about it. I prefer to be able to explain my reaction (to myself, or to others) in a way more substantial than simply ‘I love that book!’ or ‘I can’t stand that show’.

In general, I’m also attracted to systems, and in thinking about the appeal of stories told in various media, I’ve become quite attached to the four ‘appeal characteristics’ defined by librarian Nancy Pearl: Setting, Story, Characters, and Language.[1] Pearl developed her criteria for use with mainstream fiction books (specifically, to help librarians quickly gauge what a patron liked about a particular book so that they could be more effective at recommending others). When thinking also about genre fiction and about stories told in media other than books, I find it useful to loosen her definitions around these characteristics somewhat, and to add another two characteristics to the mix.

Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share a little about each of the six characteristics I use when reflecting on how I received a story.

Two things that I don’t set out to do here:
  • I’m careful to try to distinguish this personal reaction from any assessment of whether the story was well told (‘good’) or not. I find that a book being well written or a show or movie being well made is a pretty poor predictor of whether I will like it.

    I like lots of stuff that is, on any objective assessment, poorly made; and conversely, a lot of stuff that’s won wide approbation doesn’t appeal to me at all. In other words, I find the Metacritic or IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes score has little to no correlation with whether I’ll enjoy watching something.

    When talking to people about a book, TV show, or movie, I try only ever to say something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ if I genuinely think it was well done or not. When discussing my personal reactions, I try to adhere to ‘I liked it’ or ‘I didn't like it’.
  • I don’t usually think in terms of dislike or hate: I usually find it more useful to think in terms of an absence of appeal. I try to reserve ‘dislike’ or ‘hate’ for things that I actually find distasteful, annoying, or offensive in some way. Happily, I find that such things are few and far between. It’s much more frequent that I just don’t find anything to enjoy in a particular book, movie, or TV show.
Finally, I’m very conscious of the unspoken pact between storyteller and audience; I’ll keep coming back to the question of what kind of story am I being told, and what therefore might I expect from such a story.

This week, characters.


As a reader or viewer, characters might appeal to me in one of two ways: because of what they are or because of who they are.


A question of ‘what’ can be examined by reference to their role in the world of the story and by imagining the author or filmmaker saying:
‘Let me tell you a story about a...’
So, to use just a few random examples, if that sentence is:
‘Let me tell you a story about a sorcerer.’
‘Let me tell you a story about a sea captain.’
‘Let me tell you a story about a rocket scientist.’
chances are I’m already listening for more. Conversely, if the pitch is:
‘Let me tell you a story about a cop.’
‘Let me tell you a story about a doctor.’
‘Let me tell you a story about a politician.’
chances are I’m already wondering what the teller might bring to the story that would possibly make me want to listen to the tale to follow.

Steinbeck once put it:
[French literary theorist] ‘Boileau […] insisted that only gods, kings and heroes are worth writing about. I firmly believe that. The detailed accounts of the lives of clerks don’t interest me much unless, of course, the clerk breaks into heroism.’[2]
I tend to agree.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to think that I’m going to dismiss a story just because the central characters don't belong to some pre-determined set of Acceptable Professions for Protagonists. All I’m doing here is acknowledging a set of preferences that I know I have. This is not Procrustes’ bed.


This second way of examining characters is a little more nebulous. It asks whether this imaginary person—whatever their role in the world of the story—is, subjectively to me, interesting as a person. Perhaps a very crude litmus test here would be a variation of that familiar hypothetical question that asks us who, out of the whole world and all of history, we would invite to dinner if we had a chance. Similarly, I might wonder whether the character is someone with whom I’d like to share a meal.

For examples, I can look to books I’ve enjoyed in the last few years that have contemporary settings (to avoid any degree to which setting—to discuss another week—might influence how interesting I find these fictional people).

So, the central characters in Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle are a male porn star and a woman suffering a psychosis.  Davidson portrayed them with such sympathy and tenderness that I felt that I knew and loved both of them by the end of the book. And although not one of the main characters in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex cast a fireball, commanded a patrol boat, or launched a rocket, each of them would be more than welcome at my table too.

Another litmus test: do I actually care about the fate of this character? Have I got anything invested in this imaginary person at all? The most memorable counter-example for me: when a main character is ambushed, shot, and—I thought—killed close to the end of season 1 of The Wire, it had zero emotional impact for me at all. This left me fairly certain that I had nothing invested in that character.  The death of Adric in season 19 of Doctor Who moved me far more, and that was a character I despised.

Considering the characteristics of a breakout novel, Donald Maass suggests:
‘A work of fiction grips our imaginations because we care, both about the characters in the tale and about ourselves. To put it another way, we are concerned about the outcome of the story because what is happening to the characters could happen to us.’[3]
This seems entirely reasonable to me, but the converse is also true: if I don't care about the characters, I’m less likely to be gripped by the tale. Maass’ focus is a little different (he’s writing about the plausibility of the basic premise of the story) but he continues:
‘Looked at that way, the requirement that a premise be plausible is not so strange. If it could not really happen, then why should we bother with it?’[3]
Or, presumably, if I never actually cared about any of these fictional people anyway.


Which brings me to the credibility of characters. I've come to understand that some folks highly value psychological credibility in fictional characters: they want these characters to behave, react, and talk as real people behave, react, and talk. They want characters to have motivations that seem like plausible reasons for them to do things they do in the course of the story. I have few such expectations. To quote Steinbeck again (talking about his second novel, To a God Unknown):
‘Its characters are not “home folks.” They make no more attempt at being human than the people in the Iliad.’[2]
Rather, I look for psychological credibility in characters that is commensurate with the kind of tale being told. The characters in Middlesex are ‘home folks’, and I respect and value the high degree of plausibility in Eugenides’ portrayal of them. However, if I’m reading epic fantasy or most kinds of sci-fi, I have no such expectations and probably even prefer characters who are larger-than-life: here I do want ‘gods, kings, and heroes’.

I think much of my dissatisfaction with some recent sci-fi TV franchises is due to a growing trend to try and humanise and naturalise their characters.  The companions of the revamped Doctor Who series are certainly more well rounded than any of their counterparts on the classic series, and to me, the show is all the weaker for it. When a character becomes a companion travelling in the TARDIS with the Doctor, I really could not care less about the home life of the family that they leave behind.

I suppose that for me, credibility intersects with the ‘what’ and ‘who’ in that if I’m interested in a character by virtue of what they are, I don’t need or perhaps even want psychological credibility. But for me to care about who that character is, they probably need to have that credibility as a prerequisite.


Finally, a note on growth and transformation, the  expectation that the events of a story should change the characters who participate in them. Writing in 1973, David Gerrold saw this as an essential difference between plays and movies on the one hand, and TV series on the other:
‘In drama other than series television—say, a play or a movie—the event that is being told is the most important event in the hero’s life. It is the whole reason for the existence of a story about this person...
What the hero learns from the event is what makes it the most important event in his life...

The story is about the lesson that this person has to learn—and these are the events that will teach it to him...


In a series the form has to be turned upside down—the events depicted must not be the most important events in the hero’s life. Otherwise, there’s no point in going on with the series. Everything after that would be anticlimactic.’[4]
Since the 1990s, the rise of TV shows with season-long and series-long story arcs has certainly changed this landscape. Characters on TV now do grow and develop as their counterparts in plays, movies, and novels have done.

I’m certainly open to growth and transformation in characters in all these media, but neither do I insist on it. I’m aware, though, that this kind of character development is very important to some people, and for example can lead to a strong preference for serial TV over episodic (or as Gerrold called it, ‘semi-anthology’ TV).

Again, I think it comes down to the type of tale being told.

Next time, I’ll discuss setting.

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