In a post a couple of weeks ago, All Characters Must Die , I wondered why readers care so fiercely about fictional characters. I figured the key was identification and empathy. Readers find enough of themselves in the characters to climb inside their fictional skin and experience the story. But understanding isn’t enough. As a writer, I have to know how to breathe life into characters.
First, let me bring you up to date on Lady Catelyn, the character in A Storm of Swords whose death pissed me off. It’s relevant, I promise. You might recall that Catelyn is murdered along with her son and his followers at a wedding celebration. But that’s not the end of her. Since this is fantasy, she gets to come back – not from the dead but as the dead. A magically animated corpse, she wrecks vengeance against the villains who betrayed and killed her son. I no longer empathize with Catelyn. It’s not so much that she looks monstrous (her body was in the river a few days before the mage and his crew fished it out), as that nothing is left of her but vengeance. She orders the death of a woman who had been her friend. Alive, she would have heard the woman’s explanation and most likely shown mercy. Not anymore. Her soul is gone.
Now we jump from the fantasy world of George R.R. Martin to the gritty realism of Plain Jane, a thriller by a James Patterson wannabe. The principal characters are a female cop, her partner who is also her lover, and a brilliant FBI profiler who used to be her lover. Almost halfway through the novel, I still don’t give a shit about these characters. Oh, they have their amusing quirks (the profiler loves comic books), but somehow they aren’t quite real.
Maybe it’s because they don’t have lives beyond their trite love triangle and frantic campaign to find the serial killer before he strikes again. They aren’t shown at home or thinking about their families or eating scrambled eggs. They lack emotional depth and physical reality. I have no idea what kind of music stirs them. They never have a fanciful thought. They work without sleep and are supposedly dead tired, but nothing gives me the experience of that exhaustion.
They act in ways that seem incredible. During a strategy session, the female cop allows the profiler to pull her pants down and draw on her stomach with a magic marker. Okay, I understand he’s a dashing and charismatic guy, and she still has a thing for him. Granted, he’s talked her into helping him pull some dubious stunts. But if anyone undressed me in a roomful of men, I wouldn’t stand there thinking it was lucky I had my crotch hair waxed. Moreover, I have trouble imagining how any woman tough enough to be a cop would let herself be humiliated like that. Not that it’s impossible – human beings are capable of almost anything – but to believe it, I have to believe in the character. And the more outrageous her behavior, the more compelling that belief has to be.
The characters in Plain Jane are kind of like the reanimated Lady Catelyn. They have motives but no soul. I might go ahead and finish the novel anyway. I enjoy a puppet show every once in a while.
Speaking of puppet shows, anyone remember this classic?