I seem to have found two broad ways to think about the people in stories.
Of course, you can cut up that great literary monolith called ‘CHARACTER’ any way you want, depending on your views, experiences, or your mood at the time. This is merely one way that I do, and it has to deal with emotional legitimacy.
That doesn’t sound quite right. I don’t mean to imply that certain emotions are inherently illegitimate, not at all. It’s more to do with a story’s emotional impact, whether I feel that its characters exist purely to create a calculated emotional reaction in the audience, or whether they were created as people who merely undergo emotional conflict due to their character traits and actions. The emotion doesn’t define them, in other words, it’s felt as a byproduct of their actions, as a means to sympathize with and understand them.
This has bothered me more and more lately, as I notice more stories that lean on the former. Media that creates constructs, images that look like people, and puts them through the grindstone purely to make the audience feel bad for them. They make these people as tragic as possible, give them horrible backstories, ornery personalities (which are of course totally acceptable and sympathetic because of those backstories, oh hey Lord Byron), and then make them murder their families or something to that effect. They come up with the action, then retroactively create the character and everything to fit.
These writers, in effect, pick a stereotype, give them just enough of a unique twist to give the verisimilitude of personhood, and then throw them into hell. They make them do horrible things, while expecting us to find them still sympathetic because they have a reason for it. They lost their sister to the demons, I don’t know, and that’s why they have to raze an entire city that was tangentially related.
I don’t like these stories, if that isn’t obvious.
I’d hate to use an anime as an example, as it’s not the most universal thing I could talk about. It’s all I’m thinking of right now, though. If you haven’t seen it/don’t care about anime, I’ll try to summarize as best I can.
So Fate/Zero. Prequel to the popular Fate/stay night franchise. It’s an anime about magicians in the modern day summoning figures from history as their quasi-familiars to fight over the Holy Grail. These familiars are slotted into a few broad categories that pretty much just translate into JRPG character classes. Also King Arthur’s a girl and always has been.
Also also there’s an English character who is literally named ‘Waver Velvet.’
Anyway, while there’s a lot that rubs me the wrong way about the show, let me just talk about the main character, Kiritsugu. I’m going to spoil his backstory, so just ignore the next few paragraphs if you care about that.
So as a kid, he traveled around the world with his magician father, as he tried to research a way to bring back his dead wife. I think. They eventually settle on an idyllic island town in I believe the Pacific, where Kiritsugu meets and falls for this older girl whose name escapes me. His father is distant, but generally a decent sort. Life’s pretty good!
Tragedy strikes when Kiritsugu’s love interest becomes infected by whatever magic his father has been working on, and Kiritsugu eventually discovers her on the brink of becoming a zombie. He does this by literally stumbling upon her as she’s eating a live chicken in its cage. With accompanying sound and visuals. She pleads with him to kill her. He doesn’t, because he’s 12 years old and is understandably frightened out of his mind. So, she escapes and infects the entire town, and he later kills her that night I think by bashing her head in.
He’s rescued from the now-zombified villagers by a paramilitary squad of rogue mage hunters, because of course they exist. Specifically, he’s saved by the stunningly attractive female leader of the hunters, who will later become his weird MILF/guardian figure because, again, anime.
She gives him a gun to protect himself, or he steals it, and tells him to escape the island with them. Instead, Kiritsugu goes to find his father, who is dismayed that his research led to this, and tells with his son to flee with him. Kiritsugu, mentally screwed up due to the events of the night, instead decides to kill his father in cold blood. To prevent this from happening again, I suppose. He then decides to live with the hot mage hunter chick, and that’s how he spends his teenage years.
He, of course, later kills her in an easily preventable scenario where he has to shoot down a jet airliner with a rocket launcher, when she’s trapped on board. Because of evil magic bees.
What we have here is a character with one of the most ridiculously tragic backstories I’ve ever seen, which takes two whole episodes of a 24 episode series to detail, purely to explain why he’s emotionally dead.
With these kinds of characters, and I’m not referring explicitly to F/Z anymore, you’re supposed to feel bad when they endure, or cause, terrible acts. The writer creates extremely contrived scenarios when the only way to survive/further their goals is to kill people they or we care about. The victims, by the way, are pretty much stereotypes of idyllic, good people, usually female, or jerks with hearts of gold. That’s really the only purpose they serve in the narrative, to be killed. We don’t know much about them otherwise, and they, to me, lack enough humanity apart from their deaths for me to care about them.
It’s tragedy porn. That’s at least what I call it. It cheapens emotional drama by making it as overblown as possible, creating characters as melodramatic as possible, at the expense of realism, to cause the strongest possible reaction through convoluted plots. It lives on making the audience feel as bad as possible, riding that high (or, rather, low) as long as possible, and trying to create a lasting impact that stays with you. It fools you into thinking that it’s meaningful because it made you feel.
If all you want me to get out of your story is to feel bad about the characters, then it’s about as effective a narrative as those ‘adopt-a-dog’ commercials. Fictional emotional trauma has become so cheap nowadays that I find it hard to care if that’s the sole point of the story, without any real kind of literary or existential meaning beyond the character essentially shouting “I FEEL BAD AND THAT MATTERS BECAUSE I LOOK LIKE A PERSON.”
As a counterpoint, let’s look at the ever-popular Song of Ice and Fire series. You also have grim, morally ambiguous characters, some with tragic backstories, some that are just shitty people to begin with. You see their perspectives on a lot of matters, and see characters interacting with them and confronting them about their behavior.
Their actions have consequences, and their actions are rarely ignored, thrown out purely to elicit a response. They’re a direct result of who they are, and their backstories never absolve the character of blame, they merely explain the context. Which is what backstory should do, it shouldn’t override the character’s current actions.
Consider Jaime Lannister, originally portrayed as one of the more unsympathetic characters of the series, and developed through the books into one of the only really honest ones, one of the few characters with an actual moral compass that isn’t heavily weighted. Every major decision he makes has context, is a logical move based on his personality, and is constantly commented upon and worked through via his own internal thoughts or external character interactions.
For everything Jaime does, from earning the name ‘Kingslayer’ to his latest actions in the books, he is forced to explain himself. The audience, then, feels bad for him not just for the bad decisions he has to make, but for the fact that presented with similar options, we might do the same because he thinks like we do. Jaime is, after all, human, and he didn’t have to kill his foster mother with a rocket launcher to explain why he’s cynical.
That’s one of the main things between constructs and characters, I think, and how they tie into emotional drama. We don’t need a construct to explain themselves. We don’t need to know their thought process for making a decision. We only need that decision to be as powerful as possible. If the drama is strong enough, then its purpose has been met.
That’s not enough for me. It might be for you, though, and that’s fine if it is. Really, I know I’ve been bashing it throughout this post, but if you like these stories, then you go and enjoy them. More power to you! I’m just explaining why they don’t work for me.
For my fiction, I don’t want my characters to be constructs. I want them to be people, with lives, histories, personalities, quirks, and flaws. I want every decision they make to grow organically from how I’ve written them, and I want them to have consequences. If I make you feel bad, then it’s because you couldn’t see the character happy any other way, not that I artificially made it so they can’t be.
I want them to have problems that real people have, and deal with them the way real people might. Even if they aren’t human, or live in a fantastic, unrealistic setting. Life will always find a way to flourish in strange circumstances, and people don’t stop being people just because they have a few supernatural tweaks. They’re still going to be anxious and cynical and everything else real life people suffer from. It’ll just have different causes.
Tragedy arises from people being imperfect, and good tragedy, in my mind, arises from their imperfections leading them to ruin. I shouldn’t have to write them into the hole, they should be digging themselves in. And when someone asks them why, all they say is that it’s who they are.