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GUEST POST | What Does It Mean to Be Compelling? by Robert Jackson Bennett

What Does It Mean to be Compelling?
by Robert Jackson Bennett, author of The Troupe


We don’t relate to fictional characters in the way we relate to real people. There’s a distance there: the people we want to know in real life, for example, should generally mesh with our lifestyles, and behave in predictable, dependable ways.

Fictional characters often defy both these expectations – after all, that’s what makes them fun.

But while we know what makes a good friend, what makes a good fictional character? This is a little less certain. Because while we can enthusiastically read about characters we like, love, and trust, we can do the exact same thing for characters that repulse us, that disgust us, vicious, thoughtless sociopaths roving through society like sharks through ocean waters.

So what’s the mechanism that makes us invested in Harry Potter to the same degree that we are in Tony Soprano? “Likeable,” see, can’t be the only thing that makes a character good. I think it’s part of a tier of qualities, each one as valid as the next.

The first quality that makes a character work is that they’re sympathetic. Odds are, this is a character you want to know in real life. They either have problems that are like your problems, or they react to problems that you don’t have in ways you probably would. Harry Potter, for example, is a frequently sympathetic protagonist: he is our everyday man (or boy) thrust into wildly unusual circumstances, and he’s got a tragic backstory that’s humanized him, made him more compassionate. Similarly, Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird is a sympathetic character, living a childhood we both wish we had had and, once we understand the circumstances of her society, wish had been totally different.

Sympathetic characters are not limited to children, naturally: think of Maximus from the movie Gladiator, or Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs. Both of these are highly sympathetic characters, due to their behaviors, their stories, and the circumstances we see them in. We both understand them,and like them.

The thing about sympathetic character is that the audience directly connects to the character themselves. This is different from merely understandable characters, where a character does things the audience would not do, but these actions are understandable due to the circumstances the character is in, or their history in their world. Henry from A Farewell to Arms is such a character: though his situation is extreme and dangerous, the book does not spend time making him likeable, or exploring his feelings, and he kills one character for sheer insubordination. His actions are examined as matter of fact, a result and reaction to a war-torn world. We understand that he does not act as we would act, because we have not been through what he has been through.

The character Brody on The Wire, for example, was often tremendously unsympathetic: a young, thuggish drug dealer, he was often the most aggressive and thoughtless of the three young dealers at the start of the show. Yet the show’s objectives were not to make Brody a likeable character, but to demonstrate the effects the war on drugs has on a city and a community. So Brody’s actions, when viewed through this lens, act as an indictment against the institutions that keep such brutal situations in place: he is not a player, not a villain – he is a symptom, more effect than cause, and, eventually, a victim as well.

Characters who are more understandable than likeable are often connecting to the reader via means beyond the character itself: whether it’s the world, or the message the story is trying to make, the character is often not an end, but a means.

But the really odd duck in all of this are characters who are neither sympathetic, nor understandable: they are not like us, we would not act as they do, and we have no means of explaining exactly why they do what they’re doing. So why do we keep watching them? Why stay with a character if you have no access to them? We watch them, in essence, because we are compelled to.

The character Patrick Bateman – and in fact most of Brett Easton Ellis’s characters – falls under such a category. He is not like us: he is a serial killer and a rapist of an unusual enthusiasm. And we are not sure why: we never come to learn of any abuse, or trauma; his personal circumstances are not challenged, for he is phenomenally rich, and swimming in attractive women and drugs. Yet he does not enjoy these things, as we might: he is brimming with disgust and rage, which he takes out on coworkers and women with gruesome glee.

Why would anyone want to spend time reading about such a person? It’s because he is, strangely, compelling. And the nature of a solely compelling character is one of the hardest to nail down: it’s the one where the author himself or herself must work the hardest, either by establishing a magnetic voice, or exploring the character’s actions in a highly unorthodox or stylistic fashion. In addition, there’s often an attraction to understand the character, to figure them out like a puzzle: the character, being neither likeable nor understandable, is a mystery. But the voice of the author and the story must be strong enough to attract the reader in the first place.

Don Draper from the show Mad Men is another example. Don frequently acts as a cryptic cipher throughout the show: the show never telegraphs what Don is about to do, and we only get glimpses of why he does the things he does, which are often terribly amoral. But the voice and style and atmosphere of the show is so strong, and the nature of everything so enticing, that we are always left with the question, “What did that mean? Why did they do what they did? And what will the effects be?”

When you find a character compelling, you are invested in their future, if not their immediate actions, and usually you are invested because you wish to understand them more. For these characters, the author and the execution of the story is the manner by which the audience connects to them: we follow them for their style, for their voice, for their intriguing artistry.

Now, not all characters fall into one category. And characters change. To dip back into the AMC well, Walter White of the show Breaking Bad starts out as a sympathetic character : he’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he wants to provide for his family. Then, he becomes an understandable character, if not sympathetic: he’s in too deep, he can’t walk away, and he’s forced to do the horrible things he does. But when he has no reason to keep doing what he’s doing, and yet continues to, he becomes compelling: he’s neither sympathetic, nor likeable, but he’s become a mystery to us, a creature we are willing to follow due to the sheer weight and style and artistry of the story.

So, when you’re reading your next story or watching your next show or movie, and you find yourself thinking, “I don’t find this character likeable,” you should then wonder: is that a genuine criticism? It must be judged on the goals of the story. Not all stories are out to make their characters likeable. Nor do they set out to make their characters understandable. Stories, after all, are not your friends: they are stories, viewpoints, positions and perspectives, winding tunnels and tangled roads. Simply because you did not like someone you met on the road does not mean the road is necessarily bad: you might not have noticed it, but that unlikeable person might be the sole reason the road got to where it was going to.


Robert Jackson Bennett‘s 2010 debut Mr. Shivers won the Shirley Jackson award as well as the Sydney J Bounds Newcomer Award. His second novel, The Company Man, won a Special Citation of Excellence for the Philip K Dick Award, as well as an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original. His third novel, The Troupe, is out now to wide acclaim.





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6 comments:

L.B. Gale said...

The example of Don Draper as a compelling character we watch for reasons beyond likability and understanding is perfectly true. Same would go for Tony Soprano. There is something "realistic" about these characters that we love to watch. They don't always do the right thing or comprehensible things, and this inconsistency is what makes them enticingly human.

Paul Weimer said...

Draper is an excellent example of a negative compelling character. Well drawn villains, too, capture that.

Sam X said...

There are a lot of grey characters that I love in Game of Thrones as well. Jaime and Cersei are probably the best examples; throughout the narrative thus far (let's say season 2 for those who haven't read the books), they've confounded the more heroic characters. But their realism and doggedness translate into compelling, and for that reason I find them far more interesting than say the Stark children.

Jon said...

Bodie Broadus was sympathetic not just because he was a victim of the system but because he had heart. Say what you want about what he was about, he was going at what he was doing with a will.

His death was affecting because he continued to stand on his "old game" principles against the "new game". In hindsight, what makes that so tragic is that the "old game" was hyper-violent compared to the "old-old way" when the drug trade was all taking place under the covers.

Robert Jackson Bennett said...

Eh, I'd say in the first season Bodie (you're right, I got the name wrong) was tremendously unsympathetic. As the nature of drug dealing in Baltimore changed, though, he became more sympathetic. But in the first season... beating a drug addict half to death, punching out a 50-something cop, and, well, being part of probably the most tragic event in the first season, if not the whole show... I'd say he wasn't particularly sympathetic at all, not in the first season.

Jon said...

That's true, but he wasn't the focus of things the first season. I think his escape from the boy's village (S1? S2? Can't remember) is where I started rooting for him - not to be a great dealer or whatever, but just to find a way out.

The bit where he had to kill Wallace was just heartbreaking, because it took him over the edge of "I kinda like this kid" to "oh, god, what did this life make him do."

My chronology's all messed up, though, I know. I'd have to (horrors!) watch the series again to track his arc more accurately.