I should be reading Ulysses for my class on Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett.
Obviously, this means I am doing the rant on likeable characters instead.
In self-defense, I did read 70 pages today.
This is a mixture of a) fantasy character traits I find likeable, b) fantasy character traits that I notice are popular, and which I find likeable if done right, and c) stuff I’ve used when I want somebody to like my characters.
1) A sense of humor can be really attractive.
Why so many fantasy readers and writers jump immediately to “Sarcasm!” as the one and only example of this, I don’t know. Sure, a sarcastic character can be cool, but they’re not unfailingly likeable; I can think of ones that made me groan because their sarcasm wasn’t clever, because the author made them talk even when it would have been far better to shut up, or because they employed sarcasm at moments when they should have used emotional honesty and got forgiven for it anyway. And, of course, it’s an old stand-by for a villain or rival to use comebacks, yet still stink as a person.
No, the character having a sense of humor about him- or herself, combined, where possible, with the author having enough of a sense of humor to let the character screw up, works best. I’ve mentioned Dave Duncan’s “A Man of His Word” quartet before. One reason it works so well for me is that Duncan doesn’t insist that the reader like, admire, adore, and love Inosolan, the at-first-spoiled princess character, before we’re out of the first chapter in Magic Casement. He shows her doing things she uncomfortably suspects are ridiculous, making mistakes she has to be talked out of, and joking about the mistakes of others by thinking that she would have done the same thing a few years ago, before she “grew up.” Duncan also obviously has a sense of humor about Inos, in that he shows her obsessing over her problems, and lets the reader know simultaneously that those problems matter to Inos and that they are small in the overall context of the world.
Inosolan remains the one princess character I unabashedly like. Other times, I may be able to admire skillful character-building, but I usually get impatient with the princesses and wind up tolerating them at best. So try a sense of humor. It can work to leaven high fantasy, without deadening it altogether.
2) Give the character some attitude to approach life beyond pessimism.
That doesn’t mean that pessimistic characters can’t be likeable (see point 3), but I read so many of them, and know so many people offline who complain and sigh about the world yet do nothing, that I’m always glad to see a character whose whole life philosophy does not consist of that.
And it doesn’t mean that your character has to be an optimist, either. She may be, like Signe de Barbentain in A Song for Arbonne, who misses her dead husband and knows the dangers of war, but doesn’t curl up and die because he died, and who has the time and kindness to smile at the man she hopes will help save her country. But it’s not the only path she can take. She may be stoic, able to endure life as it comes. She may be choleric, intent on taking the bull by the horns and flipping over any opposition that comes her way. She may be bouncy; when an enemy knocks her over, she gets back up and goes on bouncing again. She may see the whole of life as a challenge, and revel in it far more fiercely than the usual calm optimistic person.
Characters who smile and take a run at life can easily bring an answering smile to the reader’s face. Overdo it, and yes, it’s smarmy and annoying. But so’s any other character trait; the passive heroines, and the heroes who do nothing but brood on the deaths of their family and then take revenge, are proof positive of that.
3) Couple pessimism with bloody-mindedness, and you’re on your way.
Pessimism doesn’t have to make people angsty. It doesn’t have to mean that the character does nothing but sit around, sigh, and say, “I told you so.” Pessimism can combine with the character’s disgust at the state of the world and create an absolute burning anger and a desire to change it.
I don’t think this means a pessimistic character has to be “fiery.” Fiery characters fit better under point 2; they say the things the reader wishes that she could say, come up with snappy lines, and never bother to hide their anger. They’re more like burning fires. That’s fine in its place. But a pessimistic character who gets angry may say nothing, though think quite a lot, and bury the anger until she has a chance to strike back at the people/things/concepts that have made her life and the world so utterly wretched. Then up comes the anger like a burning volcano.
Vlad Taltos is like this. He’s human in a world of Dragaerans, nonhumans much taller and stronger than he is, with more rights, and much longer-lived. He gets beaten up as a child by Dragaeran children, his money taken and his pride jeered at. He learns to fight them, and gets paid as an assassin for killing them (he won’t take jobs that require him to “work” on humans). It would have been easy for Brust to turn him into a revenge-driven machine. Yet Vlad’s also perverse enough to have a circle of almost exclusively Dragaeran best friends. He bucks his own pessimism about Dragaerans even as he labors under it, and recognizes it (see point 4), and decides that he will “hate them in general and love them in particular.”
There are other reasons to like Vlad, but this is probably my top one. He gets to be dark and brooding, but there are aspects in his character that work against it. He manages to reconcile and use them both.
4) Self-knowledge is a wonderful thing.
Fantasy characters often have epiphanies. But those epiphanies, equally often, don’t go to the core of knowledge about themselves. They concern love interests, or they get the fantasy character to realize the truth of a particular aphorism the mentor figure has been spouting at them all story. And after the epiphany, the character changes direction. He needs no more revelations.
Doesn’t that make the character resemble a wind-up toy, rather? He revises his beliefs once, when the author tells him to, and not again. He comes to perfect self-knowledge with less work than most living people. And the self-knowledge usually concerns one aspect of himself, one not that complex, and one which the author may telegraph hundreds of pages in advance when she brings the love interest on the scene and the hero hates her, or when the aphorism that his dead mentor used to repeat first appears in his mind.
Here I go with my mantra of change again—not just in the face or love or wisdom, not just once, and not just for the protagonist, but on as many levels as possible, and as many times as possible, and for as many characters as possible. They don’t all have to be the same size. Perhaps the author can fit only one really big revelation in the story. But small epiphanies can be buried like land mines all along the way, leading up to, foreshadowing, and preparing the way for the final supernova at the ending.
“Character arc” is a term for it. Perhaps a better would be “character labyrinth.” A living person doubles back on herself, doubts her new wisdom, struggles against some revelations longer than others, comes to realize long after the fact that a certain action or decision was a mistake, and so on. Let’s see more fantasy characters do that. I think it’ll make them easier to like. They’ll seem more real, they’ll seem more complex, they’ll perform more actions or make more decisions that the reader can fit into the “likeable or not?” pattern, and they’ll provide the sensation of surprise and delight that I talked about in the rant on fascinating characters, that of discovering layers which the reader never knew were present.
5) Have people do stuff.
This is present in almost all fantasies in some form or another. The protagonist is the one who defeats the Dark Lord, marshals the armies, recognizes the danger, makes love to the love interest, and so on and so forth. “Sideline” stories, where the narrator is not actually the center of the story (a la The Great Gatsby), are relatively rare.
Yet I think the way these characters are made to do things is crude, most of the time. They don’t actively want or desire the honors and rewards that get mantled on them; that happens along the way, almost by accident. They’re not free to double back and have multiple revelations and doubts and mistakes as per point 4; they move along one track, to one epiphany that gives them the courage to do what they’ve been told from the beginning of the book they should do. They don’t work alone; they have cheering squads and wizards and telepathic companions and gods to prop them up and haul them along and do a good portion of the work for them. Most damning of all, they often don’t accomplish what they accomplish because that’s the kind of person they are, or get noticed because of their accomplishments. It’s something inborn, something they had nothing to do with: color of their eyes, magic passed down from a bloodline, being the descendant of some ancient king. Without that, I feel, too many fantasy heroes wouldn’t get looked at twice.
The characters I really like are the ones who are doing things, in a small way, even before the final confrontation. They may fail, they may need help, they may also have the special eye color or magic or blood, but they’ll be moving on their own, standing on their own, the kind of people who would get noticed even if the prophecy had never existed. Their position of prominence might have been very much smaller, but they would still cause ripples around them, cause people to remember them when they died, and not be completely mute or inglorious simply because they lacked whatever it is that the author uses to make them the center of the story.
Would these characters do things even without their inborn traits, cheering squads, revelations, and adoring crowds? If the answer’s yes, I think the character has a soul and will ultimately be far more likeable than if the answer’s no.
6) Have the character be herself, as hard as she can.
Let’s get the obvious interpretation of this out of the way first: Yes, I find it hard to like hypocritical characters, the same way I find it hard to like hypocritical people in real life. It can be an interesting flaw, but when the author insists that the character is above criticism for it, or, even worse, doesn’t appear to notice that her “intelligent” character who advises people to use their brains nonetheless acts dumber than a brick, my empathy and sympathy wither away.
The less obvious interpretation, though, is when the author sets the character up for a fall. She is going to be made to “learn a lesson.” And that is the whole point of the story, that learning of the lesson. The character will proceed along in ignorance of something all the other characters in the story know, with the revelation of that knowledge supposed to change her completely into another person. Well, if I liked the first person the character was, I’m going to be unhappy with the change, and if I didn’t like or care about her, why would I go along just to see her punished for something she couldn’t help? If the author keeps the knowledge from the character, she can hardly be faulted for acting as she does. That’s the author’s fault for setting up a sucky character arc.
Then there are the stories where something is very obviously true, and the character knows it, but keeps acting as if she doesn’t know it. For example, there’s magic in the world, everyone else believes in it, the character actually sees fairies dancing in the moonlight…and the author has her go on ignoring the existence of fairies and the implications of that existence, because she just can’t wait for the plot point where the character will be forced to admit she was wrong.
Oh, poo on a stick. Come on. Without a compelling reason to do so, which the authors writing this kind of story almost never provide, why would any character so fiercely resist the truth? More than that, why does the author go around proclaiming the truth through the narrative and the other characters, yet force the protagonist to act in obviously blind and stupid ways? I can’t like a person like that, because she’s not a person. She’s an automaton being forced through the motions.
Have the character be herself. If she’s wrong, she should have reasons for believing what she does, and the whole point of the story should not be to punish her for being wrong. If she acts in ignorance, she should have reasons for possessing that ignorance. Let her be what she is, right or wrong, schooled or unschooled, as hard as she can. Don’t create her just for the sake of the person she will be when you step in and slam your message down her throat (and, not coincidentally, often down the throats of readers at the same time). Have her be real and committed to her goals, invested in her deepest beliefs like most people are, and alive. This often makes people intensely likeable.
One reason I adored Dan Simmons’s Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, despite them being hard sf, which I normally never read, and despite the characters having goals that it was possible to violently disagree with, was that the characters were themselves as hard as they could be. They didn’t do things they knew were wrong for stupid reasons. They had deepest beliefs they could argue, instead of sounding as if they had souls of tissue paper when confronted by an opposing point. And when they got slammed with new information, they took account of it or ignored it according to their personalities, rather than Simmons shutting their eyes for the sake of the plot.
I have the feeling I’ve said much the same things before, especially in the fascinating character rant, but fascination and likeability overlap for me quite a bit. And anyway, I hope at least some of this is valuable and new.