Sunday, February 07, 2016

Hitler Liked Dogs; Creating Nuanced Characters

If you've been following the American presidential election at all, you might have noticed a pattern in the political process, a pattern that has always been there, but has sharpened in the last twenty years. Politicians -- and their campaigns -- no longer debate issues, they demonize their opposition. And this isn't simply between parties, it happens within the party itself.

Look at the Democratic battle. If you like Bernie Sanders, Hillary is a lying scumbag and the worst possible option for president. If you're a Republican, your competitors are "losers." And this is not the fault of the politicians. I repeat, it is not their fault. If they don't do this, if they do not go "full negative," it is very difficult to win. (Everyone would suggest that Obama is the exception, but in 2008 during the primaries, his camp vilified Clinton.)

It is unfortunate that the electorate finds this negativity so compelling, but it does. Here in Canada, our new PM, Justin Trudeau, had only been in office for a few days before the Conservatives started taking shots at him. Days. Not years or even months. Days.

The Importance of Nuanced Characters

This is also true in fiction. There are still many writers, particularly those who write genre fiction as I do, who insist on having "evil" characters and "good" characters. It's one thing to find this extremism in politics, it's another to find it in a novel. It suggests that the writer either doesn't understand human nature or has a very narrow view of the world, neither of which is helpful for producing stories that not only make us think, but give us a better understanding of human nature.

The purpose of any story is to help us understand ourselves and our world and our place in it. It isn't simply to provide entertainment. If the only goal is entertainment, then the story will be simple, and not in a good way. (Think about all those empty blockbusters that we see during the summer, the ones with great special effects and laced with a story we forget as soon as we walk out of the theater.)

That's not to say that every character needs to be an anti-hero, either. Generally, you want your protagonist to be likable, but you also want to be able to identify with that character. That means flaws.

The flip side to that means your antagonist must have moments of likability. Or in the very least, you must provide some understanding of why said character is acting in such a manner. Most novelists do well enough presenting flawed heroes. The same is not true for their "villains."

I cannot tell you how many books I've edited where my first message to the authour is to create more nuance in their characters. At first, this sounds like a daunting task, but it's really not. All that's needed is more thought about what the character is like. Some authours use a sheet listing characteristics, some create a bio or resume, others do an entire family background. Whatever works. In my case, I try to emphasize at least one point of honour for every villain (I don't love that term, but you know what I mean) in at least two scenes in each novel.

Hitler Liked Dogs

For example, if I was writing about Hitler, who was indeed a vile human, I would have a scene with him caring for his dogs. The reason we do this isn't to make Hitler look good, but to emphasize his humanity. What we're looking for is the contrast, not between good characters and evil characters, but the contrast of good and evil within the character.

This develops nuance. It also makes your story more unpredictable. If I know that character A always acts a certain way, the story becomes predictable. And boring.

Ultimately  the reader is looking for is someone they can identify with, someone who reminds them of themselves. When a critic says that the characters "leap off the page," this is what they're referring to.

I don't think our politics are going to change any time soon. But it is possible for the electorate, for us, to do a better job communicating with those who see the world differently. We writers need to do a better job of this as well. Not only to create better stories, but to help our readers see the depth in the world and in people that the twenty-four hours news cycle will never show us.

Listen, we live in an age of memes and six second vines and 140 character opinion pieces. As writers, we need to do a better job pulling people out of the cycle of false dichotomies. It's true that some people are more helpful than others and others are are more selfish. But we're all human.

And there is nothing simple about being human.