Four Annoying Things People Do When Discussing Fictional Characters

I like talking to people about fictional characters, for two main reasons:
1) It’s interesting to think about psychology, behavior, relationships, and culture.
2) As a writer, I find it worthwhile to think about how other writers have crafted characters. How did they portray a character’s development or find a creative way to describe appearance?

Along with many enjoyable conversations with people, online and offline, about characters, I’ve also run up against some frustrating behaviors. Here are four examples of annoying things people do during 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, and people have preferences that you can’t control.

What I do care about, however, is a fair and well-intentioned reading (or viewing, if we’re talking about a movie/show). 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’ll exaggerate mistakes or terrible behavior while pretending that the character has never done anything meaningfully good or interesting. Sometimes, they’ll completely make stuff up.

(I’ve also seen the reverse situation, where someone favors a character to the point where they exaggerate everything good about them and give that character credit for things they never did. This can also be annoying.)

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 more complex figure with a mix of characteristics and motives, a character who may have changed in key ways throughout a story.

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.

It gets annoying, however, 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.

Regarding whether or not 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 some major details about their job or religion. Or maybe the character is meant to come across as deceptive or unreliable in some way. 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 is reflective of the author’s beliefs. Or that if a villain didn’t receive a harsh punishment, it must mean the author is condoning what the villain did.

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, dog-piled, or even doxxed. By liking a certain character, you become indistinguishable from them in values and world view. 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 whole story more interesting, even if in real life you know they would be harmful to you.

Implications Beyond Fiction

Everything I’ve mentioned here can derail a discussion about fictional characters or make it become deeply unpleasant, an exchange of attacks rather than a conversation. But what also bothers me is that I see the same kind of reactions applied 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 some 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/insult-buzzword-of-the-day”).

If we change the way we think about and discuss fictional characters, can we change the way we look at real humans in the messy world around us, present and past?

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