This entire post originally was conceived a few weeks ago, when I was talking with friends. And then I started to think about it some more as I’ve read a few books (Night Circus and the soon-to-be-reviewed The Borrower especially). I began to think about why characters are so important in the making of a good novel, and why some novels fail to stick the landing when their characters fail.
Perhaps one of the most important things is that the character changes. Let’s create a fictional character (kind of ironic since all characters are fictional) and call her Sally. If Sally were to sit back and let all of the action happen to her, and not react at all, it would make for a very boring novel. She could be assailed with vampires, werewolves, zombies, and monsters calling at her door, but if she sits and lets everything happen with no change, that’s boring. She does not grow and consequently neither does her story. Without change, we read a straight line. But with some sort of change, small or not, we are given the tiniest bit of visual interest. With more change and reactions, Sally begins to become real.
Scottish philosopher David Hume best described a human’s unwitting need to change:
I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind that they are nothing but a bundle or collections of different perceptions which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement. Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying their perceptions. Our thoughts are still more variable. And all our other senses and powers contribute to this change.
Basically, Hume is saying that with each moment that passes, we change who we are. These changes may not be drastic, and most will pass without our even recognizing the change. But if we as humans change with every passing second, then those characters who do not seem more aloof and unrealistic. They are not only unexciting, but also without the grounding realism that modern readers look for, even if they are reading fantasy.
This is one reason I liked books such as The Hunger Games, Matched, and The Chosen One. Our three protagonists (Katniss, Cassia, and Kyra [the choosing of three protagonists with hard K sound-names was just noticed and unintentional]) have to deal with three very different worlds. Each girl was raised knowing that their lives would turn out one way, and each found a way to strive for more, but mostly to change their circumstances. Katniss begins the series hard and closed to anything save for her sister. By the end, she has let herself feel more than she ever imagined. Cassia dutifully followed in the steps of the Society, but begins to question her freedoms. She takes small steps throughout the novel to get to the end, but they are vital to the large leap she will inevitably take. Kyra opens the novel knowing that her world needs to change, but too afraid to take the necessary steps. But her awareness leads her to the goal of escape, no matter how bittersweet. Each girl began the novel in one place, and ended it somewhere else. Katniss perhaps changed the least, but her changes felt deeper and resonated just as strongly with the reader.
I would say another important aspect for Sally is that she must feel real. Sally cannot be perfect, in other words. No one would want to read her story because no one would relate to her. It is ok to have an aspirational character, but even Gandalf and Aragorn had their flaws. Flaws ground the character much like their progression does. No human is perfect, even if we feel that we are at times. And if we are writing and reading stories about humans (or elves or vampires or fae or shape shifters), then we as humans want to see a bit of ourselves in them. I mentioned in my review of Night Circus that the story would have been far stronger with stronger characters. I did not feel much sympathy for Celia or for Marco simply because they were hard for me to relate to (dangling preposition!). After all their trials, they still felt distant and rather the same as they started. This was also the problem with The Iron Witch. Donna never felt like she got it, whatever lesson she was supposed to learn. And even after all the things she saw, I wasn’t sure she had made any change to herself.
The only passive character that ever worked (of the books I’ve read) was Shadow in American Gods. He might be passive for about 80% of the novel, but he makes a lot of waves after he has shaken himself awake. It only works because Shadow has just lost his wife and been released from prison. His passivity fits with a man who is grieving and relearning how to choose for himself. And yet, even Shadow changes in the end.
If you have a villain in your story, it is also good practice to have him be not wholly bad. Wholly bad villains simply feel like a caricature. After all, even the mean, nastly old lady down the street probably gives old clothes to the homeless or bakes for her grandkids. Just as Sally can’t be all good, neither can Jafar (I know, I know) be all bad. Heck, even Voldemort wasn’t completely evil. After all, he agreed to save Lily Potter because Snape was in love with her. Sure, Voldy killed her in the end, but he was willing to spare the life if it had been more convenient. (This was the only redeeming quality I could come up with, however. And Jo Rowling is about the only author I know who can get away with this evil of a villain and still have it feel real. Comment if you can think of other good qualities for poor Voldy.)
To recap: Sally needs to learn something or to change in some little way; Sally also needs to have flaws; Sally cannot be passive in her own story; Jafar cannot be totally evil. If the protagonist is flat, there is not much there to see or read.