Monday, January 08, 2007

The Character Paradox

In looking over the favorite character lists that some of my blolleagues and myself have been posting over the past week or so an apparent paradox leaps out at me. This is: 1) For a reader, memorable characters are larger than life. They are extremes in one way or another. 2) For a writer, larger than life characters are not realistic, and therefore appear weak.

Is this an actual paradox or am I reading too much into it? If it is a paradox I wonder how to resolve it. Are readers and writers doomed to war with each other on this issue?


Sidney said...

Well, I wonder in some ways if the things that make characters larger than life don't also make them more vivid and human.

Sherlocks Holmes is brilliant but arrogant, impatient, suffers addictions and thus is multi-dimensional.

Charles Gramlich said...

Good point. Multi-dimensionality is generally considered good by both readers and writers, although not necessarily realistic, perhaps.

Steve Malley said...

Let's not too forget that real and ordinary people have their own larger-than-life moments.

Stories happen out at the edges of things. Whether genre or literary, stories have conflicts at their hearts that force our characters out of their everyday lives and out past what comes easy to them. These are powerful, larger-than-life moments in their personal histories, and we all have them.

'Realistic' is something of an elastic concept. It's not about boring characters, or characters nothing much happens to, it's about characters who make recognizable, emotional sense within their stories.

Of course Holmes is arrogant and impatient. He's so damn much smarter than everyone else, it must drive him half-mad having to wait for others to catch up.

And the coke problem isn't surprising for the peripatetic personality driven to excel at the violin, chemistry, boxing, fencing and I forget what all else. Not to mention being of service to the police from time to time.

And all of it makes sense in light of the fact that for all his accomplishments, Holmes is still in big brother Mycroft's shadow and always will be.

And one of the most beautiful things about Holmes' characterization to me is the understated way Conan Doyle worked all this in without ever letting a bit of it get in the way of the stories themselves. It helps make Holmes realistic that the longer we know him, the more we learn.