*Characters are stories. There are no two ways about this. While we might want our stories to take us on a journey to new places or scare us by beings that harm the mind from their mere proximity, all of these things, exotic locations, terrifying threats, etc., mean little if there are characters we care about and who are able to overcome these circumstances. Without characters, there is no story. But what about the plot? As you read this, you might shout at the screen. This is why I would say: Stop screaming at your computer (or smart device, tablet, or computer watch thing). You look insane. Second, plot is nothing more than the cause-and-effect chain created by characters’ actions.
It would seem that character is important, so it would be logical to have likeable characters. We want people we can hang out with, no matter how many pages it is. People who we feel connected with and with whom we would enjoy a beer.
But, this isn’t the case in all cases.
You may have seen the movie American Psycho, which starred the indie actor Christian Bale. We’re going to be in esoteric, cult movie territory. But please bear with me. Patrick Bateman (Bale’s character) has a routine that he sticks to. It includes things such as exercising, healthy eating, expensive skin care products and butchering people. The usual. He is a bad person and does unforgivable, reprehensible things. But I won’t be surprised if he’s not one of those moving, eye-popping disasters you can’t help but notice. Our protagonist is a sadist, a psychopath and a murderer (ambiguous considering the ending). What? This is the person against whom we should be rooting. We should be asking Willem Dafoe for his sex.
But we don’t. We want to continue following. He is charismatic and all that. We can ignore his disgusting deeds, but Patrick Bateman is strangely likeable. Maybe that’s why we should root for him. Let’s just say that he is likeable in this case even though we know in our hearts that we would have to get our viscera removed if we met him for a beer. You win the day if you like him! Everyone go home! Ted Bundy, charismatic, well-groomed and a pleasant guy, was also the same. His victims were not the only ones who suffered. However, no one regrets that he was captured and made to pay his crimes. It is obvious that there must be something more, that some other ingredient that makes us want to root for this madman. Let’s continue down this spiral to find out more.
Travis Bickle is a psychotic, aloof and delusional Taxi Driver director by Marin Scorsese. His inner monologues are so cryptic that forensic psychologists would have to read them after someone like him snaps. He does. He even attempts to assassinate senators during his growing delirium. His character isn’t exactly stable and harmless. Although he does one good thing by trying to persuade a prostitute underage to quit her pimp, overall he is a complete mess.
Yet, Bickle is a favorite character of mine and is an icon. The famous quote and scene are well-known to all. “You lookin’ at me?” He was the one.
We have many great examples. Perhaps even more so, because books are infinite in terms of what you can depict. For starters, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s Perfume:The Story of a Murderer. You can see it in the title! It’s about a murderer, especially one who murders young virgin girls. This is what? This is sick! This is depraved! This book has received excellent reviews!
What is the matter ?
Yes. The demented lead character is the reason this book received great reviews. Our young girl killing lead character. The main character is a character with a highly trained sense of smell. This, strangely enough, is the book’s title. But I won’t lie, I couldn’t put my finger on this bizarre tableau of madness and obsession. This is only one man. Only one man. Just one man. Forever.
I’m referring to Sisterhood of Traveling Pants. It’s a frightening read. I am just kidding. I am referring to Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, which has one of the most frightening characters in literature. AM is the Allied Mastercomputer. Technically Ted is the main character. We are brought into the horrors of the story world through Ted. When it comes down, Ted is not the only person I think of when I think about this story. My first thought is always directed to the omnicidal, inhumane, and inhumane incarnation of hate, AM. This story was just as compelling due to the ever-present, insane and omnipresent AM. As AM takes revenge on the species it spawned, we are forced to watch, wondering what it might do next and what its capabilities.
There are many more examples, but I will stop there. It is important to remember that the characters we find most appealing, and the ones that we are unable to look away from, are also the most difficult to like. Although serial killers, psychotics and omnicidalmaniacs may not be the type of people you would like to have as dinner guests, they still own whole books and movies. How is this possible?
While likeability can make us feel comfortable with characters and make us want to see them, it’s not what keeps us from watching them. It’s ultimately about how compelling a character is, and how much empathy one has for that character that determines whether we want to read or watch them. This is something I cannot stress enough: likingability alone is not sufficient. A perfectly pleasant character is one that I can picture. One that is just… so lovely. He is nice to his children, his friends, the dogs, and the kitties. This character makes me feel bored. Is this why such a boring character exists? Isn’t this what we want? Is that not a hero? A hero?
There are many ways to make a character fascinating. Perhaps the character is clever. Perhaps the character is a fighter in battle. Perhaps the character is successful in some way. Perhaps the character is willing or able to sacrifice his/her life for those who are close to him/her and for those whom he/she feels responsible. These are all compelling things that make us want more. This helps to explain why Patrick Bateman is able to hold our attention. He has a lot of money, more than most people can dream of. Is that enough to make him feel enticing? It does help. The paradox, or the core of the character’s contradiction, is what really screws up the grey jello-blob reader’s brain (brain for zombie foodsies). One person who is supposed to have it all is the highest ranking member of society, but is still a monster. This is what? How does this contradiction of contradictions survive? This question makes us curious to find out what the next step will be. Tension is created when there is tension between the inner and external parts of the character. Similar things can be said about Orlando Bloom, Nightcrawler. The conflict between Bloom’s cordial exterior and the glimpses at animal hunger and apathy is evident. We would like to see how this conflict can be resolved in the same person. Let’s face the truth, we can only take so much from a character who is completely deplorable. Empathy is key here.
Empathy is the ability see and feel through another person’s eyes. This is essential when it comes down to storytelling. Empathy is what makes a character seem relatable and keeps us reading or watching. It’s possible to make characters more accessible by understanding their thoughts and how they see the world. It is why monologues like Taxi Driver and American Psycho are so important. This allows us to connect with characters that might otherwise be difficult to reach. This technique is easier to use in books that allow us to access a character’s inner world and hear their thoughts on an ongoing basis. Perfume is a good example of this. We see the absurdity of the main character’s actions and we are able to understand why we should follow him along his journey. We feel empathy for him, despite his horrible acts. Although we don’t have direct access into AM’s thoughts, we can still relate to his thoughts. It is not omnipotent, despite its appearance. It is trapped in a dead world by its immense intellect. It is, in a sense, a victim seeking vengeance on its torturers. This sentiment can be understood almost instinctively by many. Although it may not be possible to justify the actions, having insight into the thinking of a character can help us read more and understand more.
So there you have it. It is not enough to be nice. This is not to say that people are only interested in reading about horrendous murder. These are extreme examples to show that any character can be compelling. We can feel empathy for any character and/or find an interesting aspect of them. There’s nothing wrong in having a friend or acquaintance we enjoy a good conversation with, but there are times when we want to read about the person we would rather have a restraining order against.