Wednesday, February 12

Homo Sapiens vs Homo Fictus: What's The Difference?

It is often said that characters are the raw material from which stories are created--and I couldn't agree more--but let's examine this. What, exactly, are these entities who populate our stories and how do they differ from flesh-and-blood people.

Pseudo-Beings, Story People, Homo Fictus

Characters are a pseudo-species of humans that differ from their flesh-and-blood counterparts in (at least) three respects.

1. Characters are fathomable. Understandable. Humans often aren't.

I'm not suggesting that great characters, outstanding characters, don't have contradictory desires or goals. Far from it. 

One of the best characters I've ever come across is Walter White from Breaking Bad. What are his two main cares, his two main drives? To take care of his family and to excel. To take his great big brain out of mothballs and, no matter the consequence, show the world what he can do. To be remembered.

These two desires often come into conflict and it is this conflict that drives the story forward.

When I suggest that humans are often unfathomable I'm talking about people--humans--who want one thing one minute and then the next minute not only want something completely different, but don't even remember having previously wanted anything else. Gah! 

Humans are flaky, their goals can and do change at a whim, they make bad decisions in silly ways that aren't the least interesting. 

I have spent years, years, trying to understand some people, their motivations, what makes them tick, and they're still a mystery. Every time I think I have them pegged they do something unexpected.

How many times have you heard the neighbors of a serial killer say, "He seemed like such a nice man"? 

The key point here is not that characters shouldn't have contradictory drives or desires--they should!--it is that, ultimately--and the sooner the better--we must be able to understand them. As the story continues we'll begin to see more of their layers, and we may--probably will--revise our initial judgements about certain things, but, by the end of the story, we must have the feeling of understanding. We must be satisfied that the kind of choices they made came out of, was a result of, the kind of person they are.

Let's face it, compared with a our favorite characters, the average human is downright boring. Snoozeville.

Love it or hate it, for a character to be interesting and memorable he must be fathomable. Otherwise, as James Frey says, How To Write A Damn Good Novel, the reader will be bored and move on.

2. Characters are exceptional; most humans aren't.

Granted, not all characters are exceptional, but every character I've ever fallen in love with, every character that has lingered with me after the last page, has been exceptional in at least one respect. 

Perhaps it was not how they dressed or acted or, one hopes, smelt, but something about them. This is what Dwight V. Swain calls a tag of attitude. But this has another name as well: a trait. A trait is a behavioural quirk or disposition. Swain writes:

"Tags of attitude--sometimes called traits--mark the habitually apologetic, fearful, irritable, breezy, vain, or shy. Obsequiousness is an attitude, and so is the habit of command. Here, too, are found the men and women preoccupied with a single subject, whether it be golf or babies, business or yard or stamps or fishing. For all preoccupations, in their way, represent habit of thought or view of life.

"The key thing to remember about tags is that their primary purpose is to distinguish . . . to separate one character from another in your reader’s eyes." (Techniques of the Selling Writer)

For example, Mr. Monk (played by Tony Shalhoub) is a former police detective with an obsessive-compulsive disorder whose main goals in life are to find his wife's killer and to get back on the police force. As a character, Mr. Monk is mostly unexceptional. His wardrobe is bland, his culinary tastes do not lean toward the adventurous--just the opposite. And he most decidedly does not have a charismatic personality. 

But Mr. Monk is fanatical about cleanliness and he is an exceptionally--even inhumanly--good detective. His core skill (or trait)--he notices absolutely everything in his environment regardless of whether it's important--is both (and this is his catchphrase) a gift and a curse.

That's interesting. That's a character you can build a series around. Captain Leland Stottlemeyer (played by the talented Ted Levine) often complains that the only thing exceptional about him is that he knows how to get hold of Monk! Ted Levine is a terrific actor, but the character of Captain Stottlemeyer couldn't support a TV series.  He's just not extreme enough.

3. Humans are infinitely complex, characters aren't.

Fictional human beings are simpler and more goal-oriented than ordinary flesh-and-blood people. 

One of the things I like about my friend Michael is that we have the same taste in movies. When we watch a movie I can generally tell which parts he'll find funny, which parts he'll roll his eyes at, which parts will make him cry, and so on. 

But he surprises me. Perhaps he's had a bad day and he's grouchy so he doesn't laugh at things I thought were hilarious or he thinks the hero who sacrificed it all for his true love was an idiot, or ... well, you get the idea. No matter how well we feel we know someone, they surprise us. But, more than that, they surprise us in ways that don't make sense.

I watched The Dark Knight Rises yesterday and ... I don't want to give away any spoilers, but if you've watched that movie you know there's an interesting twist at the end regarding one of the characters. (If you haven't seen it, what are you waiting for? Watch it!) 

That surprise made sense. Like the surprise at the end of The Usual Suspects. After you learned the truth about the character you could look back through the movie and then you'd realize that you'd missed--or misinterpreted--a few things. Fundamentally, it made sense. It was (and this is the important bit) satisfying.

Humans do unexpected things with unsatisfying results in ways that make little or no sense. That's boring. Or maddening. Often both. Characters are blessedly simple. They have fewer desires, fewer goals. And the needs they have are more exaggerated, intense, than the ones had by ordinary humans. 

Question: What is your favorite character? Does he, or she, have an extreme trait? 

Photo credits: "Sister Of Chucky" by peasap under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Karen, my work is to research the deeper, underlying motivations that cause people to behave in the ways that they do. My experience is that a great deal of confusion results from accepting what people say they want at face value, rather than looking at the subtexts in what they say, and reconciling that with their actions. Is this kind of a filtering process similar to what you do in your work, or do you have a different approach?

    One favorite character: The Doctor, from Doctor Who (especially the version that offered villains jelly babies). The Doctor's extreme traits are fluidity of identity and disorientation in time. These traits are also, not coincidentally, core aspects of the threshold experience in a rite of passage.

    1. Hi Jonathan, thanks for that! I had been thinking about Doctor Who the other day.

      Filtering process, I'm not familiar with that writing term, but certainly I agree that humans often twist the truth into pretzel like shapes when it suits them. A trait that many characters share, especially those in murder mysteries. (grin)


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