Thursday, June 28, 2012

How much reality is too much?

As a slush editor, I very much enjoy reading other magazines’ guidelines. Today I was looking over Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine guidelines. When I saw they had a list of common problems, I went straight there.  Much of it was standard, but there was one interesting perspective that caught my eye.
14. Characters Ain’t People:Characters are the shoes that readers want to slip on for a vicarious stroll through the clusterf***s of life that no real person would actually want to step into. Characters are relationships. They are the focal points of the push and pull of all the things that drive a story but they aren’t actually people. If you think of your character as a real person, it will be far more and far less than a character should be. If your character comes across as a whole person it will be too much. It will be too full and there will be no empty spaces left for the reader to imagine what it would be like to be the person the character is supposed to represent. If your character comes across as a real person, it will also be too small. If the reader is going to slip inside the character’s skin, that skin needs to be at least a bit oversized. The character needs to have that little extra that allows it to break from the ties that bind real people.

You know, I’m not certain I agree. I can’t see why you wouldn’t want your character to be as real as possible. The characters that have most stuck with me aren’t those that I identify with as much as those that seemed to be whole people, who seemed to be so real that I could imagine the way they’d approach any situation.

But it does seem that some readers like to put themselves in theplace of a character.  I remember reading once that part of the reason the Twilight series works so well is that Bella is hardly described. In other words, any young female reader could easily imagine herself as Bella.

Whenever, as a child, I became really entranced by a story, I envisioned myself hanging out with the charactes… not actually in place of someone like Anne McCaffrey’s Lessa or Tamora Pierce’s Alanna. There are all sorts of in-betweens, of course, that  involve identifying with or sympathizing with a character or her choices.

What do you think, as writers and/or as readers? Do you prefer characters to be real – or to be able to put yourself in the role of the character and live the story?

Also, this made me giggle:
Corollary 3.1: Dialog is inherently superior to prose. If you can replace three sentences of narrative with a single line of dialog, you are morally obligated to do so. In fact, if you don’t you will go to hell, directly to hell without passing go, and it will be one of those really bad levels of hell where all the fiction is written by accountants


  1. I think the quote is correct in that the characters have to be larger than life to do the insane things they do in books. But I think, too, that the trick might be to get the reader to believe that the character is whole and real even when he/she isn't - for instance, I don't know every detail of what Harry Potter went through at school, but at least on some level, I can empathize by filling in the day to day gaps with my own school experience.
    Great post. Very thought provoking.

  2. Yeah, I'm with you Sabrina. This seems like odd advice to me. I've seen criticisms of characters being too one-dimensional or cardboard, but I've never heard anyone say that a character was too realistic. I'm kind of curious about what a too realistic character is like.

    Maybe it is similar to dialogue. You want dialogue to seem real, but you don't want it to actually be real because the way real people speak is boring. So maybe you want the characters to seem real, but not really be real?

    I never self-insert myself into the MC when I'm reading. I know some people do that, but I don't. I feel more like I'm hanging around them, so I want to like the characters enough that I want to spend time with them.

    1. I told Lawyer Friend about this, and she remarked that few authors have the talent to write characters that are too much like real life. Apparently this editor has seen some though! Or maybe it's what Susan says, that larger than life is better than too much like life, where most people spend more time worrying about bills than having adventures.

  3. If someone tried to write me as a main character, it would probably come across as schizophrenic. And I'm not :) But the things I worry about and the way I perceive myself changes from day to day. One day I might feel like I've had some closure on an issue and the next day its totally back, smacking me in the face again. I wouldn't want to read about someone like that. (The snail pace of character growth in television shows might drive me crazy, but they ain't got nothing on me!) What MIGHT work is taking a snapshot of me on one day and making a story about that person.

    Or maybe some exposition, "Month after month she struggled, and sometimes she thought she was getting somewhere, only to sink back to the starting point. Until one day..."

    1. Agree with Melanie. Characters need to be consistent, and make sense. Humans don't make sense. Real people are either always changing, or inconsistent, or mood-swingy (not a word), or else boring.

      I like this snapshot idea.

      Characters need to feel real. They need to have problems and pain, and then be consistent while they solve their problems. Characters need to have a primary motivation, so that they make sense. Humans have billions of different motivations, and if you try to show all of that it could get confusing.

      I agree with the comment. Characters should be simplified, because you simply can't show everything. My primary goal could be, I want to eat Girl Scout cookies. If I was a character there would be two or three reasons why I want to, and two or three reasons that would stop me, but humans are so much more complex. There could be a million experiences that are pushing me toward eating, or not eating these Girl Scout cookies. Some of the experiences could even be forgotten, but the feeling left over.

      You can't show everything in books. It would take forever, be confusing, and waste time.

      Characters should be real, but they should be the simplified consistent version of real.


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