Which of us has not felt that the character we are reading in the printed page is more real than the person standing beside us? -– Cornelia Funke
That’s the power of strong and compelling writing, isn’t it? The writer composes a narrative so true to life that the characters live on the page. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series is one of my favorites. Who else besides me was more than mildly annoyed when Tom Cruise decided that he was the best person to portray this character on the screen? John Rain, an assassin who specializes in murders that look like natural death events, the creation of writer Barry Eisler, is another character I’m quite territorial about. And am I the only one still waiting on my invitation to Hogwarts?
I think about these characters as I put my own Micah and Ima through their paces in KAOS. I’ve tried to identify those factors that make Jack, John and Harry so real to me and I’ve reached a few conclusions:
First, if one were to describe Jack Reacher and especially John Rain, neither of them have personality traits that are high on my radar of things that would attract me to them in real life. Jack is essentially a homeless drifter and John Rain kills people for money. If you read the Harry Potter books, not just the movies, you know that Harry was an insecure passive-aggressive whiner who, had he been more like Hermione, would have avoided much of the problems he faced across the seven years at Hogwarts. (I just noticed that I failed to identify JK Rowling as the author of the Harry Potter series and I’ll bet you never even noticed . . . that’s how ingrained these characters are in our cultural psyches.) Oh, what about Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim? The man died, went to hell and then came back to kill the people who put him there. The guy fought demons for a living . . . what’s to like?
But how many of us have felt alone in this world? Adrift? Have you thought about chunking your 9 to 5, and just wandering the world trying to figure things out or work through how you fit in the world?
Jack Reacher does and I certainly go through this at least twice a year.
Have you ever felt betrayed? Or had to question every assumption you based your life on, challenged? Have the most important people in your world suddenly revealed their feet of clay?
After years in the army and then working as a government assassin, John Rain was suddenly put in a position of questioning who his real enemies were.
I’ve concluded that it isn’t WHAT these characters do, or WHEN they do it, or even WHO they are doing it with . . . those factors are like icing on a cake. The CAKE is the human condition, their struggles for understanding, watching them fall, get up, stumble, get up, fall again and hopefully triumph. It’s like watching bits and pieces of ourselves and when these characters triumph despite overwhelming odds against them, it gives us hope that we may also work through whatever may be troubling us in real life.
Second, there is an element of fantasy, a larger than life component that also resonates. I don’t mean fantasy, like paranormal, but in the case of these characters have the ability to say, think, act in ways we can not. Jack punches his way through every conflict. Now, I’m not a violent person but when I have to deal with a certain co-worker, it is certainly entertaining to picture Jack using the force of his 250 pounds to smash her teeth in her skull. (Hey, it keeps me sane . . . don’t judge).
Finally, I believe that compelling characters become so real to us because they help us to figure things out, to understand human nature better, to see the psychology, the behind-the-scene working mechanisms. Most of us have some person in our lives who we watch with the awe of a imminent train wreck. We see the self-destruction – alcohol or drug addiction, failed relationships, co-dependency, you name it. We see the problem but we can’t quite figure out what drives that person to keep making poor decisions. Better still, we are often left in a position of having no idea how to help them.
But through characters like Jack, John and Sandman Slim, in the hands of skilled writers, they can have distasteful traits and flaws but the writing gives us a chance to see how their past shaped them, follow along to see how they work through various crises and challenges. We may never fully know what drives them but the underlying humanity perhaps, makes us kinder and more compassionate to those that are struggling around us.
Do you have other ideas about what makes fictional characters live? Who are your favorite fictional characters? I’d love to hear them. Drop me a line below.