WHEN THE ANCIENT GREEKSANDROMANS told a serious story, the characters were kings and queens, great warriors and heroes, the sort of people who expected to receive visitations from the gods – heck, the gods were often their aunts and cousins anyway. But when the Greeks and Romans set out to tell a story about common, everyday people, the result was comedy, in which the characters were lewd and foolish and corrupt.
It was long believed that great poetry could never be written about low characters – magnificent art demanded magnificent subject matter. The rules have changed since then. The invention of the novel – with such landmarks in English as Pamela, Tom Jones, Robinson Crusoe, and Tristram Shandy – proved that wonderful stories could take common people seriously.
Oddly enough, however, storytelling keeps drifting toward extraordinary heroes, so that the common people have to be rediscovered every few decades or so. Noted critic Northrop Frye examined this pattern and came up with the idea that our preference in fictional heroes swings back and forth like a pendulum. Frye used the words Realistic and Romantic in a special way, as the two ends of a descriptive spectrum. Romantic, in this context, doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not a character is in love. At first heroes become more and more Romantic (idealized, extraordinary, exotic, magnificent) until finally they become so overblown and so clichéd that we cease to believe in or care about them. In reaction, the pendulum swings back the other way, and our fictional heroes become Realistic – common, plain people, living lives that are well within the experience of the readers. However, these Realistic heroes quickly become boring, because people who live lives no different from our own are not terribly interesting to read about – or to write about. So storytellers almost immediately begin making their heroes just a little out of the ordinary, so that readers will again be fascinated – until the Romantic hero is in the saddle again.
In creating characters, we don’t have to worry about pendulums. What concerns us is that our main characters must be at once believable and interesting – simultaneously Realistic and Romantic. Each of us, however, finds a different balance between the two. How extraordinary or exotic or “elevated” do characters need to be for you to want to read or write about them? How much detail, how much commonness, how much familiarity must characters have before you believe in them? Your answer will be different from mine and from every other writer’s; your audience will consist of readers who agree with your answer.
Look at the fiction market today, and you’ll see what I mean. Do you want Romantic characters? Thrillers deal with people who are on the cutting edge of power in the world – spies, diplomats, heads of state – and their lives are never ordinary; even shopping for groceries, they have to watch out for the enemy. Historical romances deal with characters in exotic times and places, and usually people of high station in an era when class distinctions meant all the difference in the world. Glitter romances deal with the very rich, jetting between assassins in Rio, Paris, and Singapore. Mysteries offer us the detective as avenging angel, tracking down the guilty despite their best efforts to escape retribution. Fantasy, the true heir of the great Romantic tradition, still shows us kings and queens wielding the power of magic. Science fiction takes us to worlds that have never been, to show us new kinds of magic, new kinds of nobility, new kinds of humanity.
Yet every single one of these genres includes stories that rebel against Romantic excess, that insist on realism. John LeCarre’s spy thrillers achieved great note in large parts because his characters were not Romantic, James Bond-like heroes, but instead ordinary people were not Romantic, James Bond-like hopes, but instead ordinary people who got sick, confused, tired, old; people who made mistakes and had to bear the consequences. Yet is George Smiley really ordinary? Of course not. He is only one of the “common people” by comparison with the extravagance that went before. We still look at George Smiley with admiration and awe; we still expect him to achieve great things. He still moves through an exotic world. He is still a true Hero, no matter how much shine has been taken off his armour.
The same pattern can be found among mystery novels. John Mortimer’s wonderful hero Rumpole is an English barrister who will never achieve recognition, who isn’t terrible successful and loses a lot of cases, and who certainly isn’t rich. His home life is deplorable, as he endures a testy relationship with his shrewish wife whom he calls “She-who-must-be-obeyed.” His very ordinariness is endearing – we read of him and feel that he is One Of Us. Yet Rumpole is really not ordinary at all, or we wouldn’t like reading about him. After the realism has won our belief, we still see him solving cases through remarkable persistence and clever insights, and we come to believe that in fact he deserves great recognition and a place on the bench. Others may think he’s ordinary, but we know he’s a truly remarkable, admirable man. The same pattern is followed by other “ordinary” mystery heroes – Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford, Robert Parker’s Spenser, and of course all the heroes of the American hard-boiled detective tradition.
Just when the fantasy genre seemed likely to lose its last connection with reality, Stephen R. Donaldson made a bitter-hearted leper named Thomas Covenant the reluctant hero of his stories; more recently, Megan Lindholm’s Wizard of the pigeons found magic in a Vietnam veteran living among the street people of Seattle. A larger part of Stephen King’s appeal as a writer of horror, fantasy, and science fiction has been his insistence on using heroes from the American middle class, living in the familiar world of fast food, shopping malls, and television. Yet even as we recognize people and details from the real life around us, all these stories would have been pointless had their heroes not been extraordinary in one way or another, though their uniqueness was hidden even from themselves.
As I pointed out in Chapter 8, readers tend to like a character who is at least superficially like themselves. But they quickly lose interest unless this particular character is somehow out of the ordinary. The character may wear the mask of the common man, but underneath his true face must also be the face of the hero.
Why? Because we don’t read stories to duplicate real life. In our own diaries and journals we tend to write down only what was out of the ordinary, skipping the dull parts of the day. Why should we read the dull parts in the life of a made-up character?
We read stories to get experiences we’ve never known firsthand, or to gain a clearer understanding of experiences we have had. In the process, we follow one or more characters the way we follow our “self” in our dreams; we assimilate the story as if what happened to the main characters had happened to us. We identify with heroes. As they move through the story, what happens to them happens to us.
In comedy, heroes go through all the terrible things that we fear or face in our own lives – but they teach us to look at disaster with enough distance that we can laugh at it. In non-comic fiction, the hero shows us what matters, what has value, what has meaning among the random and meaningless events of life. In all stories, the hero is our teacher-by-example, and if we are to be that hero’s disciple for the duration of the tale, we must have awe: We must know that the hero has some insight, some knowledge that we ourselves do not understand, some value or power that we do not yet have.
This is true even in that great bastion of extreme realism, the academic/literary genre usually reaches such a small fragment of the reading public is because in their pursuit of seriousness, they have beaten down the Romantic impulse wherever it rears its head. But the Romantic impulse is still there. Even in the endless stories about college professors or advertising writers or housewives entering midlife crises and trying to make sense of their senseless lives, the heroes always seem to face some uncommon problems, always seen to be extraordinary contemplative and perceptive, always seem to reach a moment of epiphany in which they pass along a key insight to the reader. Despite their seeming ordinariness, these heroes always turnout to be extraordinary, once we truly understand them.
Arthur Miller may have Willy Loman to be a non-heroic hero in Death of a Salesman – he was named “low man” to make sure we got the point – but by the end Miller has shown us that Loman dreamed of greatness for himself and his children and his failure to achieve it destroyed him. The fact that Loman reached such a point of despair that he killed himself moves him out of the ordinary – but what really makes Loman a figure of awe is that he expected himself and his sons to be great, that he measured himself against such high standards that, by trying to meet them, he became exactly the Romantic hero that Arthur Miller was trying to avoid. He was one of the knights of the round table who failed to find the Holy Grail – but he was nobly searching for it nonetheless.
The writers in the Realistic tradition – for instance, Updike, Bellow, and Fowles – still give their characters heroic proportion; only it’s more restrained, used less boldly, better disguised. By the end of Bellow’s novel Humboldt’s Gift, Humboldt is definitely bigger than life; he is, in his own way, as romantically “enlarged” as Captain Blood or Rhett Butler. The difference that Captain Blood was involved in jeopardy on page one and bigger than life by page thirty, while Humboldt didn’t really become recognizably heroic in size until near the end of the book.
Without giving the audience some reason to feel awe toward the hero, there would be no story. Eliminate the usual sources of awe, the usual ways of making a character larger than life, and the storyteller will either find another or lose interest in the tale.
More recently, many academic/literary writers have striven to avoid “naïve identification” by creating “aesthetic distance” – but these writers have merely replaced the character-hero with the author-as-her, so that the admiration that used to be directed toward a character is now directed toward the artist who created the exquisite, extraordinary text.
If there is no awe, there is no audience. In every successful story – every story that is loved and admired by at least one reader who is not a close friend or blood relative of the author – the author has created characters who somehow inspire enough admiration, respect, or awe that readers are willing to identify with them, to become their disciples for the duration of the tale.
I’m not for a moment advocating that you artificially juice up your characters to make them more Romantic. That’s no more likely to result in good characterization than overwhelming your heroes with humdrum details. You’ll do much better if you trust your own instincts to choose the balance between Romance and Realism that’s right for you and for your natural audience.
What you need is not a specific recipe but rather a general awareness: It’s vital that along with making Nora seem exciting and wonderful, you also help your readers understand and believe in her, so they can connect her with their own lives. Along with making Pete seem understandable and believable, you should also show your readers why he is important enough and admirable enough to deserve a place in their memories, to be a worthy exemplar of the meanings of life.
Often when you find yourself blocked – when you can’t bring yourself to start or continue a story – the reason is that you have forgotten or have not yet discovered what is extraordinary about your main character. Go back over your notes, over the part of the story you’ve already told, and ask yourself: What’s so special about this woman that people should hear the story of her life? Or, more to the point, ask yourself: Why does her story matter to me?
You’ve got a story going. Pete’s just an ordinary twenty-three-year-old man, just finishing college after a three-year stint in the army. Degree in business administration with good-enough but not spectacular grades, hired by a major corporation and put in charge of a department. After a year on the job, others are getting promoted – but not him. He just isn’t doing all that good a job. He keeps getting distracted.
Then you don’t know what to do. You sit down to write, and what you say doesn’t seem to make any difference, it’s all lousy. You’re blocked. So you take a look at Pete’s character. There’s no reason to notice him, nothing obviously special about him. You realize that until you find – or invent – something extraordinary about him, you’ve got no story.
So you look for what it is that makes him not just different, but better or more admirable than the others. Why isn’t he succeeding? What is it about the others that gets them promoted? You search through what you’ve written so far and you haven’t answered that question. You did a great job of making him ordinary and common. But there is something different about him: He isn’t getting promoted on the normal track. Why?
It’s not that he’s unambitious – he read Iacocca just like everybody else in the M.B.A. program, and he dreams of seven-figure salaries and million-dollar bonuses, of heading a company with a budge larger than Brazil’s. So maybe his “lack” is that he can’t bring himself to have the attitude toward his underlings that most other managers in his company seem to have. He doesn’t regard them as machines that must run at maximum efficiency or be replaced; he can’t bring himself to judge their worth according to the bottom line. Pete just can’t stop caring about them as human beings.
If this is what makes Pete special, how does that affect your story? You’ve already got a character, an office manager named Nora. In the present draft you had Pete try to joke with her, but she took it as flirting and shut him down fast with a nasty little speech about sexual harassment. You never meant that relationship to go anywhere – you were just using Nora as a minor character to show Pete making an ordinary dumb mistake. But now that you have keyed in on Pete’s extraordinary tendency to care about people even when it’s bad for his company and his career, why not use Nora to develop that trait? Pete has good reason to think she’s a jerk – if he could fire anybody, he could surely fire her, right?
So when Nora starts having problems, the solution is obvious: Get rid of her. She’s inattentive. She makes mistakes. She isn’t assigning work to her staff – one of her typists has even gone around asking for work because Nora hasn’t assigned her anything in a week. Some of your other people are beginning to complain that Nora’s office is slow in returning paperwork. Nora has been snapping at anyone who dares to ask about late or missing work, and morale in her office is awful.
But Pete can’t just fire her. For one thing, he’s afraid that she’ll think he’s firing her because she rejected his “sexual advances,” even though he didn’t think his joking had any sexual overtones. For another thing, she used to do terrific work – something must be wrong. So he calls her in and finds out that Nora is having a terrible time with her six-year-old in school and her three-year-old’s day-care situation is awful; her ex-husband is trying to get custody, and the school and day-care problems play right into his hands. In other words, her life’s a mess – and the very worst thing that could happen right now is to lose her job.
He talks about Nora to a friend from school who has a managerial job in the same city. The friend tells him to fire her- she isn’t doing the work, and Pete doesn’t have the right to turn the company into a charitable organization for people with screwed-up lives. He was hired as a manager, not a clergyman. But Pete can’t bring himself to fire her. Instead he works late, going over Nora’s workload and finding ways to redistribute it, to take up the slack – in essence, he ends up doing her job.
If this were a love story, you’d develop a romance between Pete and Nora. But that idea bores you. So you have Nora react nastily to Pete’s “intrusions” into her office domain, not realizing that he’s saving her bacon; she even complains about Pete to the people above him. He can’t even tell them what he’s doing – they’d be appalled if they knew he had done her job for her instead of staying in the role of a manager. After five months of Nora sniping at Pete while he covers for her, she finally gets her kids’ problems straighted out, her husband off her back, and her life back in gear. Naturally, Pete reassigns to Nora all the work he had removed from her during her hard times. Nora, however, is outraged at a sudden doubling of her workload with no commensurate rise in salary. She quits – after writing nasty letters complaining about Pete to the people over him.
Maybe that’s the end of your story; maybe it’s just one incident along the way, with other plot threads weaving through the story. What matters is that it establishes that, while Pete is definitely a common man, there is also something uncommon about him – even heroic. He is able to empathize even with people who aren’t nice to him. He is, in fact, a noble figure.
Sure, he gets so furious at Nora that he writes out her dismissal notice a half-dozen times before she finally quits. When she’s gone, after doing real damage to his career when his only “crime was helping hold her life together, he vows that he’ll never be such a sucker again. These are all common, natural, ordinary reactions. But the audience knows that when it comes right down to it, Pete will do it again, over and over. He won’t have a Lee Iacocca career – but the audience is in awe of him for a virtue he doesn’t even value himself.
Searching for the extraordinary in your characters can help you write your story. More important, though, it will help your readers find what they’re looking for in fiction. You won’t please everybody. Some readers will reject your story because your hero isn’t heroic enough for them to bother with; others because you made him too heroic for them to believe. That will always happen, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
What you can do is search for what is “larger than life” in your characters and then make sure that your story reveals their nobility, their grandeur, however subtle and well-disguised it may be amid realistic and common details.