The Value of Believable Characters

I wrote a guest post a while back but had to trim it down to a certain word limit. This is the unedited version, which I thought I’d throw up just because I can.

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I am a massive fan of characters and very often it is they who win me over. Plots can be great, but once I’ve read one I rarely go back. It is the characters who keep me interested. I can read the same story over and over if I love the characters. If I don’t, it will have to be a brilliant plot to draw me in. Again, usually the one time.

Let’s take the Lord of the Rings. From the moment the adventure begins, did I ever doubt they wouldn’t make it to Mount Doom and bring about the end of Sauron? Of course not (although they would have blown it if not for Gollum). But I loved the characters and wanted to see what they went through. The fact the journey changed the four hobbits made it even better. I would reread to remind myself of the jolly little chaps they began as and would keep reading to watch them become the veterans of the war they end up being.

I love the amazing characters, the ones who can do the incredible, even the impossible. Even so, we want a sense of believability about them. We want to get where they are coming from. So often the motivations of heroes and villains are very simple and we have no problem in understanding them. Love and lust, ambition and altruism are things we can see in those around us and in ourselves sometimes, so when they are present in characters, we can believe in them. If we see a character threatened and it makes them behave out of character, but it works due to fear, we accept it. If a character does something unusual for no reason, it leaves us wondering why.

There is a big emphasis on relating to superheroes these days. Many think that is why Marvel is doing so well and the godlike heroes of DC (apart from the always cool Batman) are struggling. We want to ‘get’ our heroes and we like when they behave just like us. I admit to not fully sharing this view, but I can see why it works. We don’t like things too alien from us. It is all well and good watching a movie about a hero who does the right thing because, hey, it is the right thing to do, but watching someone act because it suits their interests – saving someone they love, defeating someone they hate – means we can relate. We can imagine us doing the exact same, given a similar situation and powers, of course. It means we give that bit more of a damn, cheering or booing as the story goes on.

Let’s return to the Lord of the Rings. I love me some Boromir. He’s big and strong, fearless and not without flaws. In fact one of his most defining moments is a failure. But we understand him. He is doing something many of us would do – grab the one hope his people has of salvation. Others can sit and be wise and calm, but he acts. Most of us are not wise or noble. We make mistakes. We hope, like Boromir, to make up for them sometime. Preferably not to the same cost.

Even Gandalf, who is wise, and Aragorn, who is noble, are believable. They have lived a long time and so should be smarter than the average man. But Gandalf fears Sauron, he is betrayed by Saruman, he makes mistakes. Aragorn fears failing like his ancestor and tries to escape his destiny. These are heroes and we love them for it, but we also see their flaws. When they are afraid, we share it. To not fear the Nine or the Uruk-hai would be ridiculous. It would also feel as if nothing is at stake. The very fact the best of the good guys can shake with fear at what they face makes them believable, makes us fear the enemy too, makes us care.

We want to share in the great adventures of the heroes in our books. For that they need to be believable. If at any point they seem too good to be true, we start to suspect something. We live in an imperfect world and we are often cynical. We love to leave that behind and lose ourselves in fiction.

Oddly, for us to fully embrace the unbelievable, we must believe in our characters.