Character or Caricature

Given that characters in a novel don’t really exist, I think they should still feel as though they do. It’s that whole “willing suspension of disbelief” thing we bring to reading fiction. We know it didn’t really happen, but we’re willing to set that aside so we can immerse ourselves in the story more fully.

In the real world, even the people we have the most glancing contact with have complete and full lives, just as detailed and enriched as our own, and we know that they do, even if we don’t pause to consider it. (I once read an analogy that said each person’s life is a complete book, and the best we can get to know are a few pages.)

I think characters portrayed in fiction need to have a similar feel about them. They should be presented so that they seem to have full lives outside of the needs of the story they are in. (This is where the willing suspension of disbelief comes in.) If a character is to seem credible — in the context of the story, of course — then they need to seem like they are greater than the scope of the story. This can be done through hints or oblique references that really have nothing to do with advancing the plot. Even just a few well chosen words could do the job.

I’m listening to a mystery on my iPod right now. It is set on a small island, and the key characters are basically isolated from the world for the time being. For the purposes of the story, they are the world. Yet most of the characters seem to be more caricatures than real beings. They seem to have no existence to them than the role they are needed for in the plot. They don’t feel like real people; they don’t seem to have lives off the island. They have been crafted by the author to have no more life to them than is needed for the mystery to be advanced and then solved. When this happens, it no longer feels like a story to me but a construct. Its artificiality becomes apparent, and I lose my willingness to suspend my disbelief.

I don’t suppose this is wrong, but it doesn’t seem like good writing to me. It seems like lazy writing. The author whose novel I am listening to is quite successful, and I wonder if it is another example of the “successful author syndrome” I wrote about in an earlier post.

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