I like talking to people about fictional characters, for two main reasons:
1) It’s interesting to explore psychology, relationship dynamics, and culture.
2) I enjoy thinking about how other writers have crafted characters.
Along with gaining insights from people, online and offline, about characters, I’ve run up against frustrating behaviors. Here are four examples of annoying things people do in these discussions:
1) Exaggerate the flaws of an unliked character
I won’t try to argue someone into liking or disliking a character. How people feel about a character isn’t always easily explainable. People have preferences that you can’t control.
What I do care about is a fair and well-intentioned interpretation. For some people, it’s not enough to dislike a character. They have to make that character the WORST EVER, blowing up all their faults while minimizing or erasing any good points. They exaggerate mistakes or poor behavior while pretending that the character has never done anything meaningfully good or interesting. Sometimes, they make stuff up.
(I’ve also seen the reverse situation, where someone favors a character to the point of exaggerating everything good about them and giving that character credit for things they never did.)
2) Reduce a character to one dimension
Oversimplification bothers me. When a multi-faceted character gets described – and dismissed – as “the muscle” or “the babe” or “the brat” or “the bitch,” we miss out on an opportunity to consider a complex figure with a mix of characteristics and motives. Maybe the character changed in important ways throughout a story, or maybe they stayed stuck as they are, also for important reasons.
3) “Well I wouldn’t have done that!”
It’s normal to wonder how you would have handled a situation similarly or differently from a character. It’s interesting to consider how the same situation can affect people in different ways.
But it gets annoying when people keep using themselves as the sole yardstick for determining whether a character is good, wise, kind, beautiful, worthy of sympathy, or written realistically.
On the question of whether a character is “realistic,” there are multiple issues to consider. A character may seem unrealistic because the author failed to portray them convincingly – maybe the character seems flat, written without care or consistency, or the author messed up major details about their job or religion. Or maybe the character is meant to come across as deceptive or unreliable. Or the story is set in an unsettling fantasy realm, and as a reader you haven’t yet figured out all the rules for the way things are. There are interesting discussions to be had about what it means for a character to be realistic.
In any case, your personal experience is important, but it isn’t the sum total of existence. People don’t all act/speak/think/feel the same way in similar situations.
4) Make unwarranted, uncharitable assumptions about the author and other readers
Authors do sometimes write themselves into a story as a character, or they seem to favor one character greatly (possibly at the expense of the other characters or the plot).
But I’ve also seen many cases where readers make unfair assumptions about an author based on the behavior of a character. One example – they assume that a character’s racism reflects the author’s beliefs. Or, if a villain didn’t receive a harsh punishment, it must mean that the author condones the villain’s behavior.
They may also make assumptions about other readers (or viewers) in a similar way. In some fan forums and social media subcultures, it’s imperative that you feel a certain way about a character, or else you’ll get viciously harassed or even doxxed. By liking a certain character, you become indistinguishable from them in values and worldview. Never mind that it’s possible to like a character for multiple reasons. For instance, you can be drawn to a character because they’re interesting and make the story more entertaining, even if you know they would hurt you in real life.
Implications Beyond Fiction
Everything I’ve mentioned here makes conversations about fictional characters unpleasant and unfulfilling. What also bothers me is that I see the same responses to actual people:
The need to demonize opponents, while downplaying the flaws (or dismissing the crimes) of those you support. A strong tendency to sum people up with a label or two before stuffing them into a mental compartment within easy reach. An inability to see beyond yourself and try to understand why another person (someone in the present day or perhaps a historical figure) acts, thinks, or feels a certain way. A desire to ascribe unwarranted perverse motives to people or leap to conclusions based on faulty judgments of collective guilt or guilt by association (“you agree with so-and-so about one political issue, which means you agree with them about every political issue, you bigot/communist/fascist/etc.”).
If we change the way we think about and discuss fictional characters, can we do the same for real humans?