|Victims as Characters in Literary Fiction|
Monday, December 30th, 2013
Creating a fictional character needs to serve the story being told, and in some way needs to attract and hold the reader’s interest, a connection that may not be likeable or sympathetic but must strong enough to engage the reader to produce at least some satisfaction in having read and acquainted oneself with the character.
Great characters of classic literature almost always have a touch of hero in them. In the story world, they exude qualities such as persistence, morality, perseverance, determination, strength, confidence, intellect, and/or unfailing expectations that things are going to turn out all right, qualities that rise to above average. These characters, in fiction, show resistance to the status quo, often in the face of insurmountable odds that involve conflicts in which the character must use skills, and often develop additional skills, in order to succeed. Success and failure, of course, will vary from story to story but it’s the struggle, the quality, and the authorial delivery that grab the reader. Readers generally want to root for a character who succeeds by using imagination and hard work. If the author of fiction writes to evoke reader sympathy without significant reader engagement, there can be unwanted consequences. Sympathy comes from empathy for the plight of others. When a static character is in a dire, and often unjustly deserved, state and narrative description is used to tell of past events and feelings, empathy is harder to attain. For the inexperienced author in this context, the danger of failure to create for desired reader response is sentimentality rather than empathy–and even bathos–by the reader for the character and the situation.
The difference between a static character described to evoke a sympathetic reader response and a character in a struggle with desires and motivation aimed at solving a problem enmeshed in intellectual, emotional, or physical conflict that evokes reader empathy results in two opposites that, by being aware of them during story construction, can improve a writer. Basically, the writer’s choice is inaction told versus action shown. (The comparison is like the difference in viewing a tableau vivant of Manet’s nude in the park or attending a theatrical production of Richard the Third, the “My kingdom for a horse.” guy.) And for the success of most fictional stories, these differences are not just points on a sliding scale; instead the choice is either or, and for good fiction and good stories to reach greatness, a choice must be made, or at least considered, to where the story creation is effectively under authorial control.
In most effective stories about victims, the character rails against the circumstances to improve his or her lot. Authors often fail to reach story potential of acceptance, enjoyment, and memorability by allowing the character to wallow during excessive authorial narrative descriptions of the injustices, and by forcing the reader to make judgments about the credibility of injustice in the circumstances and accepting the character’s response to the person or event that caused his or her (the character’s) present state of existence. Consider two situations with different character responses.