Why do certain characters fascinate us?

Stephen Moyer - Anna Paquin
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When I read fiction or history, I focus on the characters. The characters’ nature and experiences drive the plot and make it believable. The characters’ interactions create the conflict and lead it to its natural conclusion. If the author does not stay true to the characters, the rest of the elements of a story or novel will seem less than satisfactory. How I naturally read fiction and history influences how I write both as well.

When I write, I also focus on the characters. The characters tell me what will happen in the story. Until they seem real to me, no longer based on my own ideas but with lives of their own, I cannot write the story. Perhaps my time as a history major, examining the lives of those who came before us, has influenced me to feel this way about fictional characters as well. I strove during that time in my life to tell a story objectively and accurately. I came to appreciate the characters in history and felt they deserved as much from a historian. Perhaps being an only child with imaginary friends has influenced me also; after all, putting words in my friends’ mouths all the time would have been boring and I needed them to surprise me once in a while. I hope other only children out there will understand that last sentence. Otherwise, I sound rather strange, don’t I?

No matter.

I know that friends become obsessed with characters too, sometimes. Fellow teachers may try to diagnose Holden Caulfield, Hamlet, or King Lear. They may adore the romance between Cathy and Heathcliff or, like me, think they are the biggest brats ever fashioned by the English alphabet. Wilson in 1984 may arouse deep feelings of sympathy. They may openly admire Jonas from The Giver. My friends and I have debated Edward versus Jacob as a love interest for Bella and I even had a debate about the characters with eighth graders while I was a student teacher. (That was fun and I figure that any time you can get students to discuss fiction you have succeeded in jump-starting their intellectual processes.) We have also discussed the value of characters like Gatsby and Caulfield. Fan fiction writers might be able to relate to my sentences about character obsession. It is based on their own obsessions with characters that new plot lines emerge and compel them to create a story based on their understanding of the characters and the likelihood those characters would find themselves in such situations. I must admit that some fan fiction is just downright horrible, but there are some, like Ithaca is Gorges, that is worth a read.

Recently, I have become obsessed with a TV show on HBO called True Blood. There is no way I could become obsessed with the plot since it is rather predictable. However, the characters make the show and I am now tossing around ideas about the vampires in the show, specifically Eric Northman and Bill Compton. I recently had a little conversation on Facebook about the moral character of Eric Northman. I had to clarify why I felt that Eric was a good choice for Sookie over Bill. My position is simple…and not. I believe that all people are governed by their history and their future choices are influenced by their previous experience. That is the essence of learning. It is very possible that Eric could be written as a character that has seen such horrible things in his 1,000 years that what he does is not nearly as bad as what he has seen others do. Perhaps his moral compass is skewed and his true north is not ours, but does that mean that he is condemned to a lifetime of loveless interludes with people he thinks are disposable? Should he not – does he not – deserve love? In the meantime, I described Bill as a good ol’ boy who comes home to beat his wife, then leaves again to get flowers and promises upon his return with the “Winn Dixie roses” that he will never beat her again. He lied many times to Sookie and promised to protect her. He never did a very good job. I’m not sure I am being fair to Bill, but acknowledge that my history influences my impression about these two men. I’m interested in them because of the way they are written and the way they are portrayed by Alexander Skarsgard and Stephen Moyer. I am impressed by the way that the True Blood crew has taken characters that are less-than-interesting in the Sookie Stackhouse novels and reformed them into believable and fascinating people.

I am also envious. I wish I could create characters like that, characters that seem more three-dimensional than flat. I try, but they always seem to fall short of my expectations. Why is that? How can we teach ourselves and our students to write characters that are believable, real, interesting, and stimulating? Are the characters the most important part of a story? What do you think?


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