Imperfect Characters in Fiction

So I’m reading through the University of Chicago magazine for my job, and I came across the following in an article that caught my eye.  The article is on Harry Potter, and suggests that J.K. Rowling should be put “on a shelf with Stoker, Chaucer, [and] Austen.”  Having been acquainted with the former only through visual media, Chaucer only through tenth grade English, and the latter only through reputation, I am in no position to judge this assessment.  But the following quotation in the article caught my eye, and is what I feel like mentioning today:

Rowling’s Harry Potter novels turn on this same theme.  Each book is loaded with reminders of how everyone but the long-suffering, brilliant, and saintly (Lupin, Hermione, and Dumbledore, respectively) is captive to their preconceptions about others and usually almost brutal in their unkindness to the objects of their prejudice.

This is part of why I struggle writing fiction.

It’s a struggle for the same reason I struggle with reading certain parts of books.  The one that actually comes to mind first is actually from a series I have not read in a long time and actually harbor a great deal of resentment towards…The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan.  (The resentment springs from the fact that while I was reading each of these 1000-page monstrosities, I could have been reading something else.  But I digress.)

I acutely recall a particular passage, not so much for its content (I couldn’t tell you what was happening, if you asked today), but for how I felt as I read it.  Some stock character who probably folded her arms under her breasts constantly had been captured by the Children of Light, a virulently anti-magic group.  And I remember reading the whole thing, as both groups of characters basically existed at loggerheads, and thought to myself YOU ARE BOTH ON THE SAME SIDE YOU STUPID PEOPLE.  And as I read, I just got angrier, because the characters, due to their mistrust of each other, were failing to just tell the full story even when clear and OBVIOUS opportunities to do so presented themselves.

Maybe it’s because I’m comfortable with a fair degree of self-revelation in my own life, or maybe it’s because I’ve found that being willing to share some self-revelation with others tends to be a good way to let people know where you’re coming from, but this sort of thing really bugs me when authors do it in fiction.  For one thing, I feel it is often a device for producing conflict and thus “a story,” whatever that means, when actual living, breathing people in exactly similar circumstances would, in my opinion, behave very differently: as I’ve said already, I recall several points in that Wheel of Time passage when the actual thing that would have made sense for these characters, as characters, would have been to tell the truth about what they were doing.  But they didn’t — not because the characters themselves wouldn’t, but because the author needed a device to keep the plot developing.  Although, with Jordan, these thickening agents more often congealed the plot than thickened it.

And so my instincts, when working with characters in fiction, is to have them explain themselves to each other, all the time.  This is in part from the visceral reaction to the types of passages I just described.  I hate reading them, and so I don’t really know how to write them.

But what the story I quoted above suggests is that there is a proper place for all of this — that namely, aside from certain core types of people and characters, the task of rising above preconceptions is significantly difficult.  I don’t know as Rowling writes these characters with the facility the author of the magazine story ascribes to her — often Harry is stubborn just for the sake of Rowling’s need for someone to be stubborn, and I recall that Ron’s leaving in Deathly Hallows was accomplished in part through the trope of “magic artifact affects one’s relationship with friends.”  But the fact remains, I think, that she does it better than Jordan.  More often than not, her characters’ tendencies to distrust or prejudge or harbor misconceptions are rooted in something real about character and about what humanity means.

So this is something I need to work on in my fiction: building characters that don’t always solve their problems and live harmoniously.  I kind of knew this, but hadn’t really known how to articulate the problem until now.


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