March 24, 2015

Our Characters: No Deeper Than We Are

The warning is plastered all over the internet – write multi-dimensional characters, or risk losing your readers’ interest before the story’s even begun! Yet time and again as I attempt to bury myself in one of Amazon’s bestsellers or the NYT’s top ten, I find myself disappointed by their repetitive MCs and cardboard casts. This is especially the case in the YA genre. It’s not as if the creators of these characters are without talent. Their story plots are often ingenious and their flavorful writing styles have more than once sparked my admiration. But the characters, oh, the characters! Flat, uninteresting individuals who never rise above mediocrity except to thrash about in some kind of melodramatic confrontation! Their love is cliché, their suffering is artificial, and their ambitions are weak and unsophisticated. They lack the spark of life which infuses our own daily lives with significance, which causes us to consider the people around us as…
As what?
That, my friends, is the real question.
You see, I have come to the conclusion that the root problem many modern writers face with characterization does not lie in their approach to writing. It lies in their approach to life itself. And it is not solely a problem with writers. Literature merely reflects the spirit of the age, holding up a mirror to reality which, if examined carefully, forces us to confront our own weaknesses. Looking into the mirror of modern literature would seem to suggest that our characters reflect the people we have become: a people obsessed with ourselves, and therefore utterly boring.
 Pick up any YA novel off the front page of Amazon’s catalog and examine its young protagonist. Note how she views the people she comes in contact with. I guarantee you that her observations about people will be limited to their relation to herself. Do they threaten her or do they make her feel good about herself? Are they useful or are they obstructing her goals? Almost universally, the only individual who will be considered for his own sake will be the character who becomes her love interest. And even then, most of her concerns about him will be how he makes her feel and whether he returns her affection. If someone suffers, it is presented as efficiently as possible, because the suffering is only a plot device that moves the story forward.
Compare this to a novel such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Consider how even a minor character such as Katerina Ivanovna, the step-mother of Sonya, is portrayed. We see only what the main character sees of her, but his observations of her sufferings preserve their full intensity. Through Raskolnikov, we hear her rants and see her tears, we experience her nobility and her agony and her wretchedness. The author doesn’t need to spend much time describing Raskolnikov’s emotional reaction to Katerina because the reader is reacting for him. We are the ones moved by her sufferings, so honestly portrayed, and Raskolnikov’s behavioral changes are enough to show that he feels exactly as we do.
Just now, a fellow student reading over my shoulder rolled his eyes at me and informed me that, “You can’t compare a modern writer to someone like Dostoevsky. That guy is top notch. You have to use someone, I dunno, who still writes good but is less [insert flapping gesture].”
I disagree. What makes Dostoevsky such an incredible novelist is not necessarily his writing ability, but his ability to understand people. Dostoevsky experienced incredible suffering in his life, and he allowed this suffering to deepen his connections with the rest of humanity. When he looked around him, he saw beauty and significance in each person that he met. When he looked in someone’s eyes, he saw hope and potential for greatness, no matter their background.
When we look in other people’s eyes, what do we see? Is that girl simply a waitress who should be serving your food faster? Is your classmate simply that kid who never shuts up and makes everyone hate him? Is your boyfriend simply a man who exists to make you feel loved?
Because real people mattered to Dostoevsky for their own sakes, regardless of how they impacted him, he was able to write characters who matter to readers regardless of how they impact the other characters of the novel. His relationships with people were deeper than their utility to him, so he knew how to write relationships that have meaning deeper than their usefulness to the story plot.
As Razumikhin and Porfiry (my favorite Dostoevsky characters) are so fond of saying, people are more than the facts that surround them. If we only recognize the facts about them that are useful or pleasant to us, then the characters we create will only be a conglomeration of useful or pleasant facts. Not to mention that’s just a bad way to look at people in general.
            Among all other of our age, writers have a special responsibility to hold up the mirror of truth to ourselves and recognize our weaknesses. How we grapple with these weaknesses will become immortalized in our works, and we become a part of the great historical tradition of literature. It’s fine and good to write for pleasure, to write simply for the sake of writing, but even this can have immense value for ourselves and our readers if we allow our craft to deepen who we are as people.