December 26, 2010

Character is bunk

Dan Handler on the annoying "likability" litmus test for fictional characters:

I’m always mystified by discussions of likable characters. Characters are in books; you’re not going to have lunch with them. Moreover, the best books are full of trouble, so the characters are either in trouble or causing it. Most people aren’t likable in such situations.

Even if by “likable” we just mean “characters we enjoy reading about,” rather than “characters who seem like people we’d like,” then we’re not really talking about characters at all. Otherwise, the characters would be fully portable, and readers would find Lady Macbeth equally compelling in a Harlequin novel and in Macbeth. (I suppose there are people who consider Han Solo to be an equally compelling character in Star Wars novels #12 and #43, by separate authors, but, um, give me a break.) It’s like saying that the great thing about Kind Of Blue isn’t Miles Davis, but the trumpet itself. Such a compelling instrument!

Thus, character is bunk. There is plot, and there is voice, and they conspire to create an illusion we call “literature.” It is a glorious illusion and a compelling one.

Posted by Dr. Frank at December 26, 2010 04:53 PM | TrackBack

I find this incredibly reductive. And kind of illogical. He's saying on the one hand characters aren't important but on the other they shouldn't be represented to be interchangable? Soooo they should be distinctive but only in terms of plot or "voice"? But how can a character be distinctive only in terms of its circumstance? How is plot or "voice" even possible without well drawn characters, who exist apart from their circumstance?

Also, doesn't this view disqualify stories where nothing much happens? I'm thinking specifically of Withnail and I here. The film's "voice" is fairly straight-forward; the plot is almost non-existent; only the characters matter.

Also, I think calling literature "an illusion" is misleading. Of course it's an illusion in one sense, because its a made-up story, and which I think is the way he meant the word "illusion." But if he means people shouldn't have emotions about characters or subject characters to "litmus tests of likability," then what exactly does he mean about their being distinctive?

I think if a character is effective (or distinctive), then we always "like" it in some way. We "like" Lady Macbeth, because she's strong and intelligent and willful, but we don't like her because she's cruel and, finally, overcome by ambition. We are involved in Lady Macbath's story, because we identify with the parts of her that are admirable and are repelled by the parts of her that are not, those two parts always in competition until we identify with her not at all by the end. (This competition makes up what we would call "real," I think.) If we were uninvolved with her, or if we didn't "like" her a little, then we wouldn't care what happened to her. The interesting part of her story is that we have had to watch the part that was likable be overcome by the part that isn't.

One could argue that all of art is an exercise in varying levels of "likability" in that sense. I agree with him that people shouldn't confuse reality with literature, or subject literary characters to the same criteria they do actual people. But I don't agree that this means character is unimportant, or that it matters less, or that plot or "voice" would even be possible without considerations of character.

Posted by: Nate Pensky at December 26, 2010 07:59 PM

You're thinking deeper than the slag against the likability standard is meant to penetrate, I believe, Nate. You know all that stuff about Lady MacBeth because of the voice and drama in Shakespeare's play; the Lady MacBeth you know as a character doesn't exist outside of her portrayal in a little bit of art. If the historical Lady M. appeared as a character on Mork and Mindy, it might well be an entirely different matter. Whether LM is the kind of lady you'd like to have a beer with is a pretty poor basis for critique. Some of the things that make for impressive characterization are precisely the things you might want to watch out for when deciding whom to invite to your daughter's christening. It's weird that people think that way. I believe that's sort of what Lemony is saying, and maybe even it's kind of what you're saying, too. It's what I'm saying.

Also, maybe you have to have the experience of publishing a widely-criticized novel to be fully alive to how often people will identify traits and actions of your characters that they find objectionable or "dislikable" and present them as evidence of flaws in the characterization, when in fact, they are not bugs but features. It's irritating! "I didn't like how Lady MacBeth was so selfish, she never should have planted those daggers, what a bitch ... terrible play!"

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 26, 2010 09:14 PM

Yes, I definitely agree with the main point that a lot of readers' ideas about likability are not very fair. Wanting to have a beer with someone doesn't make for an interesting character. We like characters for how they exist in their own worlds, not in ours. But he seemed to extend that idea into a different one, that character wasn't important, which I disagree with.

Also, I disagree that characters don't exist apart from the little bit of art where they appear. If some sense of an existence doesn't shine through, apart from their appearance in a given work of art, I doubt that could be considered a very effective character. And this can be evaluated apart from a character's "historical self," also. A good example of this is the appearance of Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, etc. in various iterations of the Arthurian corpus. Some of those iterations are btter than others, precisely because the characters are "more themselves." Something like this is, I believe, also used to determine gospel from apocryphal religious texts, too, but I think it applies to purely literary texts also.

But yeah, this is different from wanting to have a beer with a character or whatever. And I think it would be very weird to be taken to task for writing a version of a character you had originated that, for whatever reason, didn't seem very "like that character." But it's still possible. I mean, if the differences I just described didn't exist, then parody of certain very well known characters, like Santa Claus or Superman, wouldn't be possible. The comic difference would have no meaning if every particular iteration of these characters had equal value to inform their serious versions, right?

Posted by: Nate Pensky at December 26, 2010 11:04 PM

"Also, I disagree that characters don't exist apart from the little bit of art where they appear."

I suppose I was being less than clear there, as that's not really my point, which is that the 'little bit of art" is what creates the character. And the means by which this characterization is accomplished? Well "voice" is probably the most important one. You mention Withnail and I as a counter-example, but really: Withnail is all voice. (But it was just terrible how he took advantage of poor Uncle Monty, and he was so cynical all the time, and he drank too much, and what was up with his hair? I really hated him. I'm giving the film one star because he said some funny things, but come on: no one's that sarcastic!)

Posted by: Dr. Frank at December 27, 2010 03:39 PM

Yes, but the aspects of Withnail and I that you describe, I see as "characterization," while the film's "voice" would be the directorial style. Directorial style (film) is to author's voice (book), as dialogue/performance/costume/etc. (film) is to characterization (book), which isn't to say that a film's directorial style couldn't contribute to characterization, etc. Thus, in the Withnail and I example, I was applying Handler's opinions about "voice" to the directorial style, not whether or not Withnail was unfair to Uncle Monty, etc.

I could be totally wrong, but it seems like one could understand characterization as a novel amalgam of references to personal experience, and a character's ability to communicate to a reader/viewer rests a lot upon the common experience of author and reader/viewer, as accessed through such references. So if a reader has not had the requisite experiences, he or she won't understand the references, or the character, and then won't like that character, and I guess I find this a perfectly valid line of reasoning to form an opinion on a given work of art. I mean, exclusivity of experience is what creates interest in a character for those who share said experience, so that the reverse should be true seems like a "comes with the territory" kind of problem.

Then again, it also seems that the real issue is a confusion betwen "likable" and "good," as good is a function of "identifiable." What people mean when they give Withnail and I one star is that they don't identify with the characters; they don't understand how Withnail could behave in such a way; they don't find it novel or funny; they just find it confusing; they ask, "Why does Withnail drink so much? Why doesn't he get a job? Why can't he stop being so sad all the time?" All questions Marwood apparently asks himself by movie's end and which apparently are a part of the way the movie works, that one should ask these questions. So "Withnail" is an example of a film effectively using the kind of exclusivity of experience I mean. (Also, I think that without the scenes where Marwood leaves, the movie would be a failure.)

So I guess I think the annoyance is social. one gets annoyed that some people would have different experiences, not that they should incorrectly apply their experiences in terms of a given piece of art. They are being exclusive, narrow people, not bad readers. (But aren't we all? And isn't being narrow the fun, when such narrowness applies to oneself and not to others?)

So anyway, yeah, I would much more respect someone who didn't like Withnail and I because they "didn't get the characters" than someone who didn't like it because they "thought it was boring." One understands the movie and just doesn't like it, while the other can't actually watch the movie the way it's meant to be watched.

Right, dead horse effectively beaten.

Posted by: Nate Pensky at December 27, 2010 04:34 PM