Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Why do we need "compelling" fictional characters?

Questionable 'people skills': Batman and his friend/colleague, Nightwing
During our conversation earlier this year, novelist Deborah Levy replied to a question about her characters: was she ever tempted to make them more "likeable"? She replied that her job was to make "compelling" characters, not likeable ones.

In today's Sydney Morning Herald column, I take up this topic: why do we need compelling characters? Why are Levy's Kitty Finch, Game of Thrones' Cersei, or guilt-driven Batman good for us? A sample:
There are plenty of products vying to be likeable. Advertisers offer safe secondary realities for quick consumption: from soft drinks promising popularity to political parties guaranteeing prosperity. But in excellent fiction, we encounter a less sanitised, more subtle, reality. One in which humans cannot be reduced to undemanding party slogans and narrow commercial impulses; one in which even the most foreign "others" can become familiar, if not friendly. 
Characters are compelling, not because we enjoy their company in any simple sense - living with Joffrey's mother, or Bruce Wayne, would be gruelling. I do not want to meet Levy's Kitty Finch, no matter how naked and wet. These characters are compelling because we are; because we are curious, ambivalent, and perhaps a little bit brave; because we are all clumsy works-in-progress. 
Good fiction rewards us for suffering the company of those we don't like: people like us.

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