Does It Matter If Characters Are Realistic?

June 1, 2015

A couple weeks ago I shared my thoughts on the novel Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig. Though the book has been well received in general, it has its detractors. Of course it does! Everything has detractors! Though, if you are a detractor of, say, puppies, I’d invite you to reexamine your life. You might be doing it wrong.

One of the things I talked about in my evaluation was the criticism that Miriam Black, the protagonist, was unrealistic for some readers. A common sticking point was that she sounds and acts less like an actual human woman and more like a sort of pseudo-fantasy woman written by a man. I use “fantasy” in a generic sense as, by any measure, it seems unlikely that Miriam would meet the criteria for a dream woman. We’re talking more about the notion that a male writer might be more likely to fetishize the notion of a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed female lead than a female writer would.

As I said then, I thought the criticism that Miriam “sounds like a woman written by a man” was fair in general sense, not least because she actually was written by a man. Writing for characters with whom you have little in common is challenging, and it seems reasonable to believe that the writers who succeed in creating the best and most memorable characters are more adept at wearing someone else’s skin than the rest of us. I look forward to the day when I can just harvest the brains of others so that I can write better characters. Until then, I’ll just do the best I can.

So I accept this criticism of Blackbirds as valid, and frankly, if the way in which Miriam Black is written does not work for you, that’s fine! A writer’s style is, without question, a primary determinant of whether or not you’ll enjoy a book, right? A story could have a great premise, a riveting plot, and interesting characters but if you don’t like how all of that is delivered, it seems unlikely you’ll enjoy reading it. Nothing wrong with that.

But the question I’ve been asking myself as someone who did enjoy the character and the writing, is how much does realism as a concept matter? If I can understand why some readers did not find the character realistic enough, why did the story still work for me? This isn’t really about Miriam Black, per se. I’m trying to figure out whether it’s critical that a character is entirely realistic, or if there other ways of measuring the success of a character.

Improbable != Impossible

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Probably not an actual street sign, FYI.

Miriam Black is what I would describe as an improbable character, but not an impossible one. That her behavior and manner of speaking is relatively uncommon in the real world is part of what makes her engaging. It’s not a requirement, but I think lots of stories are better off for having characters who are somewhat improbable. I love 75% of the Indiana Jones movies.* Is it likely that an archaeologist is also a whip-wielding adventurer badass? No. But it’s not inherently impossible, particularly in the context of an action story.

If improbable characters are acceptable, do realistic ones matter much at all?**

I see a distinction between writing a realistic character and a believable one. The realism of a character is rooted in how likely you might be to meet someone like that person in real life. The question you’re asking yourself is, “how similar is this character in behavior, thought and action to actual humans who share nominal characteristics with the character?” I think we’re prone to take physical characteristics like age, gender, ethnicity, etc. and make assumptions about how that character is likely to behave. This is natural. As humans, we group things. It makes the world much easier to digest.

When it comes to storytelling, however, evaluating internal consistency is much, much more important for determining success. Internal consistency is the idea that a character ought to behave in a mostly predictable manner based on the attributes imparted by the writer, and I see it as more precise than simple realism. As both a reader and a writer, I try to concern myself less with how much characters resemble real world people with similar traits than with whether the characters remain true to what the author has told me about them and fit within the context of the story being told. Using the Indiana Jones example again, that same character in a slice-of-life period piece drama would seem much more ridiculous than in an action-adventure movie.

The emphasis on “mostly predictable” in the statement above is critical though. If we’re presented with a character who gets into trouble because she’s a drug addict, it’s important that we see that cause problems in her life. But it might also be important that we see her begin to confront and overcome that addiction if that’s what’s driving the story. We want to see characters who remain largely reliable in how they respond to what’s happening to and around them while also growing in meaningful ways. We want heroes to overcome their shortcomings to succeed or, less commonly but sometimes better, failing to do so and suffering the consequences.**

I found Miriam Black to be rendered in a consistent enough fashion that she became a believable, if unlikely, character. Even her inconsistencies (she’s at times both cold and callous and in others sincere and caring) felt like a product of her internal struggles. You may disagree with my assessment, of course, but I invite you to evaluate characters in this fashion nonetheless.

Too Much of the Same

Creating great characters is a bit like cooking. You’re trying to get a mix of ingredients in the right proportion to make something better than those ingredients can be on their own. Still, even when you succeed to get things in balance, there are some people who just won’t like your recipe. Might be they just don’t like that kind of food. Best for all to accept that and move on.

But there’s more to it than that, too. At the top I presented the criticism that some readers thought Miriam Black as a character seemed too much like a woman written by a man and didn’t like the book as a result.  Though I accepted that argument, you could make the case I went on to dismiss it as irrelevant in what followed. That’s not my intention, and I think there’s an interesting issue to explore that’s related to whether a character like Miriam is realistic.

Part of the reason some readers dislike a character like Miriam likely stems from a more general frustration that too many female characters are rendered in a fashion they find unrealistic or unbelievable. While it’s perfectly fine to me that any one character does not feel completely realistic, I can understand the more global irritation if as a reader you feel as though you never or only very, very rarely see characters who do register as realistic to you personally.

This is the issue of representation in storytelling, that readers/viewers/listeners want to see characters with whom they identify in works of fiction, popular culture and media generally. It’s a topic that I’ve been thinking about a lot more lately, and in Thursday’s post I want to tackle this subject in more depth because I think it deserves that kind of space.

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*I didn’t actually make it all the way through Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, so maybe I’m being slightly unfair. But I doubt it. You cannot survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a refrigerator. Disbelief, unsuspended. I get that action-adventure movies stretch the bounds of what’s possible, but come on now.

**To those who had problems with Miriam Black as she was constructed, I’m probably splitting hairs. I’d speculate their dislike of the character was probably rooted in finding her wholly unbelievable to the point where anything she said or did felt phony than in whether she was precisely realistic as I’m defining it.

***When Luke Skywalker loses the fight (and his hand) against Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s at least partly because he is headstrong and angry, leading him to fall into the trap Vader set for him. Yes, it’s also out of a desire to help his friends. He’s both brave and impulsive, and it’s the mix of these positive attributes and character flaws that make it interesting. When he fails, it sets up the arc for the final film in the original trilogy.

 

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