This post is for the THOUSANDS of writers who are watching this blog. 🙂 Well, okay, there are actually about three, but I like to pretend I’m important.
Don’t ask me why, but somehow I got on the mental subject of dwarves vs. elves in Tolkien. I realized not only did I hate pretty much all of the elves (high elves, at least), I also disliked Thorin quite a bit, and it was for the same reason: they all seemed biologically incapable of having fun.
I don’t know if this is the same for a lot of readers/viewers, but I cannot connect to a character who doesn’t have a sense of humor. It holds true in all forms of media, and I’ve got almost no exceptions jumping to mind – if the character doesn’t crack a smile, I do. Not. Care.
A lot of writers try to get you to sympathize with a character by throwing you handfuls of his pain right off the bat. The writer knows him and has reason to give a shit about his pain; I do not. I will never, ever cry over a character who didn’t first make me laugh.
He doesn’t have to be witty, or a joker, or a party animal, but I need to see that he has life and feeling outside The Plot. When I start a story, I’m looking down into it from the sky, and if I don’t have reason to come down, I won’t. I can stay a spectator for the whole ride, and I won’t remember a thing about it once it’s over. Humor connects me to him. It makes me feel like I’m engaged in the story, I’m involved, I’m interacting. I don’t want to watch, I want to see.
It doesn’t have to be constant, it certainly doesn’t mean he can’t be serious: in fact, it will help me take him seriously. It’s like having two teachers: one who always tells you how great your work is, and one who shoots you down most of the time. When the second teacher says I did well, I know it means something because it’s so unusual. When a character with a sense of humor takes something seriously, so will I, because it means something now.
Fiction that did this right:
Everything Joss Whedon does
BBC’s Being Human
Fiction that didn’t:
The Walking Dead
Fiction that did this really well and really badly:
Joss Whedon is a master of this, especially with his female characters, because that’s where most writers screw up. They’re so preoccupied with trying to make their females really super cereal you guys that I never care. Joss gets that girls can relax and joke around and still be serious characters.
I’ve never connected with characters like I connected with everyone in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the reason never occurred to me til now: so much of the show revolved around their lives, just being together and having fun and making sarcastic comments, and when things got bad I cared. I’ve never cried over fictional characters like I cried over that fucking show, and I loved it, because I was right there the whole time.
Being Human UK was the same thing – so much of it was dark and angsty, but enough of it was happy and real that I felt for them. I even fell in love with the onscreen romances (which I usually despise) because I already loved the characters, I’d seen them screwing around like the best friends they all were, and of course they would be together and that’s wonderful because they’re happy together.
Rowling was the first author I ever saw do this well. She even made us care about the Omniscient Wizard, because he ate Lemon Drops and wanted socks for Christmas, and blushed about ear muffs, and I knew him within three paragraphs. I cared the shit out of his death.
(Yes, I know Gandalf came first, I didn’t read Tolkien when I was 7, stfu.)
I wouldn’t be bothered if most of the Walking Dead characters died in the next episode. I really wouldn’t. They don’t matter to me. I’ve never seen them anything but miserable, so their misery doesn’t make an impact on me.
I also never cared about most of the Lost characters – Locke, Sawyer, Charlie, Hurley, and Desmond were among the few exceptions, for the reasons I’ve been explaining in the rest of this post.
Oh, Criminal Minds. The best and worst of female characterization can be found in your formulaic plots, and unfortunately this can’t just be blamed on the humor thing.
I ask this of anyone who knows this show fairly well: right now, think of one defining character trait for each of the male characters. Mine were: Reid is insecure about his place, Morgan puts on a macho attitude he built over years of living in a poor area, Hotch is demanding and a bit cold but still cares, Rossi likes women a lot, Gideon is arrogant but with reason.
Now think of one defining character trait in any of the female team members (Emily, JJ, or Elle). I can’t think of one. They are completely interchangeable, they are The Female Characters. I don’t dislike them, but I’d prefer it if I did, because at least I’d have reason to notice they exist.
Penelope Garcia is the one woman they wrote so right it astounds me, and even then it seemed to be a bit of a copy off NCIS.
Anyway, the point is, they went halvsies on whether or not we like the fucking characters.
Doctor Who gave me so many companions I loved (Donna, Amy, Rory) that when I got the “eh” ones (basically Martha) it sucked even more. Martha was in love with The Doctor, I guess. I don’t know. Didn’t make a difference to me either way, I didn’t know her enough to care.
What I’m saying with all this is, vaguely, don’t expect me to feel something just because you told me I should. You can show your character crying in the rain for pages and pages, if I wasn’t connected, I’ll never blink. Take the time to show me why I need to care. Make me fall in love with this character, and then I’ll feel whatever emotion you want me to have.