Good Guys, Bad Guys: Caring about Character

Elizabeth Winston

Sep 21, 2012

In my fiction workshop yesterday, we had a discussion about the necessary elements of good fiction. We talked about readability and various kinds of plot; something has to happen in a story, otherwise it wouldn't be a story at all, but that thing need not be a high-speed car chase or a major life change, obviously--plenty of great works of fiction deal with very subtle subject matter. We discussed form and its connection to content, resonance, and the similarities between narrative and consciousness. What didn't come up in our conversation, however, was character. After class I went to the outdoor pool at the gym with my friend Claire, and we spent two hours floating around in the hot tub, until it got dark, talking (among other things) about our readerly expectations of fictional characters. Certainly it's not necessary that a protagonist be likable (though I personally prefer, as a general rule, to read about characters for whom I feel some affinity). And a character doesn't need to behave in ways the reader likes or approves of in order for him or her to be likable (I'm thinking of the narrator of Denis Johnson's stories in Jesus' Son, of Crime and Punishment's Raskolnikov); in fact, fiction that deals with people who are making mistakes often makes for more compelling reading. So where, Claire and I were asking, are the lines here? What do we expect of the characters in "good" fiction? Do we need, as readers, to feel compassion for or be able to relate to a story's characters in order for us to feel that the story is a good one? Or do we require only that we be able to understand a character's actions, given what we know about her? Is the most important thing that a good story's characters simply be believable? In the Poetics, the oldest surviving work of dramatic theory, Aristotle argues that character is secondary to plot, which he identifies as the most important element of drama:
Now character determines men's qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all.
Action, Aristotle maintains, is what reveals character and should be consistent with character; and characters should--among other things--be "good," realistic, and consistent (or at least reliably inconsistent). Claire and I didn't come to any stunning conclusions re: character (or any conclusions at all, really--eventually the pool conversation wandered into other territory), but it made me think more about fictional protagonists, and the basic ground rules (if there are any) for creating them. What are the common qualities of the character portrayals in the books we love best (or consider to be good fiction, anyway)? NPR's website has a somewhat weird list of the 100 Best Characters in Fiction since 1900, apparently culled from a 2002 issue of Book magazine. It names a wildly diverse group of fictional heroines and heroes, including Scout Finch, Gregor Samsa, Celie, Jay Gatsby, Scarlett O'Hara, Quentin Compson, the (unnamed) Invisible Man, Clarissa Dalloway, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Lolita, and Eeyore. How are these characters good, and why do we care about them? Food for thought.