The Secret Charm of Fictitious Characters
What creates ‘appeal’ in a fictitious character?
Is it cute looks? Except in movies or a theatre setting, the looks of any character are limited. Surprisingly few works of fiction contain anything but the most superficial descriptions of the way their main characters appear physically; normally, appearance is referred to in passing, and with only one or two key details. This lack of description is in itself interesting: the gap or void it opens up invites reader contribution.
Is it sense of humour or ‘personality’? Again, without looking, you might be tempted to say yes. But again, a remarkable number of characters in fiction are largely humourless. This particularly applies to protagonists, who are quite aserious lot in the main. When we look for humour or a cheerful disposition, we most often find it among companions of the lead character. To some degree, protagonists especially are ‘blank slates’ in the personality department.
So what lies at the heart of a character’s appeal to readers or viewers? Let us not doubt that that appeal exists: almost every film you have ever watched, every piece of fiction you have ever read, every story you have ever heard, has had at its heart at least one character you have found attractive to one degree or another. Some characters possess a life apparently far beyond the written page or the silver screen: Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life, Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird and millions more are all loved.
The answer to this isn't that they are all possessed of some mysterious ‘x-factor’ which only great authors can conjure and which is beyond our understanding. At the heart of their appeal is vulnerability. They lack something. And they lack it while making their way through story environments in which they desperately need the very thing that they lack.
Darcy lacks subtle social skills, the ability to interact superficially enough to thrive in the polite circles in which he moves. This lack warms us toward him as well as revealing him to be a person of greater depth than some of the shallow figures around him.
George Bailey lacks the ‘killer instinct’, the ability to make hard and selfish decisions which will guarantee his own survival in a town which is increasingly driven by heartless commercial forces. We feel compassion for him as he is cornered by these pressures and has to make an impossible choice.
Scout lacks the strength and maturity of adulthood. This exposes her to ridicule, embarrassment, confusion and finally direct physical danger as the novel moves to its dramatic conclusion. It is a journey which holds our attention precisely because of Scout’s child-like appeal.
You will find this in any character in fiction to one degree or another: all are vulnerable, weakened either by a specific or a general inadequacy of some kind. Most protagonists, for example, lack parents. That void or gap or hole or emptiness is what draws us in. The secret of the charm of any fictitious character is this deficiency, this lack of wholeness, which we rush to fill and which grips us as the plot moves forward.
For more, including the exact technicalities of this character vulnerability, please see How Stories Really Work.