I’ve been struggling to finish reading a thriller by a very successful and popular author. The premise is brilliant, the plotline suspenseful and intriguing at every turn and yet I’ve read four other books since I started this one. Why? I’m curious about how the catastrophic situation is resolved but I couldn’t care less if the good guys win or not. For that matter, I don’t care who lives or dies. The characters, as noble as they may be, are secondary to a clever plot.
In contrast, the television series DEXTER takes a serial killer working for the police in forensics and creates a highly flawed character that we care about. We know Dexter kills his victims in a gruesome ritual and yet his personal struggle to function within society given his damaged personality touches a chord. No one would condone what he does, but as his past and present unfold, we care about him because he has a code of ethics—screwed up as it is—and something in him touches a universal apartness.
Some of my favorite characters from literature are the ambiguous heroes—Jean Valjean, Heathcliff, Mr. Rochester—those tortured souls we don’t know whether to admire or hate. I’ll take Rhett Butler over Ashley Wilks any day. Scarlett O’Hara over the saintly Melanie. Flaws are interesting, human. And most people read to take a journey through someone else's eyes. "Witnessing" interesting events without the emotional connection never has the same impact.
Sometimes a story is told on too grand a scale to be interesting. Sometimes a disaster is too massive to be comprehended. As a writer, getting the balance between personal and universal is never easy. Too small and a story is dull, too big and it becomes overwhelming. The difference between the successful and not-so-successful book always comes back to the characters for me. Give me characters I love, and I can overlook a hole or two in the plot.
Who are your favorite literary characters? What makes them unforgettable for you?