And speaking of character development – the question came up at my seminar in Florida about whether characters should be nice. It’s not a simple answer because there are degrees of niceness. I, for instance, am very unlikable because I lack a heart or soul. On the other hand, many find the beagle very likable, but it’s only because they mistake cuteness for niceness and she always has a full blender of margaritas. These are mutually exclusive characteristics. She only has booze so she can rifle your wallet after you’ve had your fill and are singing at the top of your lungs wearing a pasta colander on your head. And cute does not equal nice. Trust me.
Social Implications of Nice
Many writers look at the social implications of niceness vs. gritty. It’s true that literature has evolved over the years and writers are exploring our own social evolution (or devolution, as the case may be in some instances) in order to investigate plots and characters that color outside the lines. As one who specializes in books that center on how people are influenced and changed by their experiences, and how they deal with those repercussions, I love the introspective look at nice vs. gritty.
So I have no problem with a not-so-nice book/characters. Anything that mirrors real life is bound to have plenty of grit and grime. HOWEVER, I do believe that the protagonist(s) needs to have enough characteristics that make us care. I look at some of our own books – some that are quite controversial in nature. As unsympathetic as some of the characters may appear, there are endearing qualities that make it possible for the reader to sympathize and empathize.
Why Are They Scuzbags?
I believe it’s important to explain why a character has certain foibles that are less than exemplar. It’s not enough to simply have a character who lies to his family and co-workers – you need to develop that storyline to explain why. I think of Dexter (lordy, but I love that show). He’s a mass murderer, and he kills his victims in very dramatic, cathartic ways. BUT there is a backstory as to why he kills. And in the words of Ahhnold Schwarzenegger, “Yah, but they were all bad.” He’s a compelling character because even though he’s inhuman to a large degree, he has a raw, almost childlike concern for people. Killing badies cleanses his soul and protects the victims. A very deftly-written character.
And that’s where I believe books must fall. I am of the opinion that few want to read about a scuzball who has no redeeming qualities. Heck, that’s why the Great Cosmic Muffin invented politicians. So while we may want to read about real life, we have to remember that our characters are the vehicles who move the plot along. Without well-developed characters, there is no plot. Without something likable about them, no matter how small, there’s no book.