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?

The Internet and Intelligence

Over time, IQ scores have been going up (the Flynn Effect), so the Internet and T.V. can’t be making us dumber, right?

A recent Der Spiegel article, Is the Internet Really Making Us Dumber? (which is also worth reading for the questions it raises about what IQ tests measure) brings up the idea that the Internet and other digital media aren’t making us dumber but are instead changing the way we think: developing certain kinds of mental skills while de-emphasizing others. So what’s de-emphasized?

One thing stands out, though: While young test subjects are particularly good at solving visual and logical tasks quickly, their vocabulary is increasing only minimally — unlike that of their parents… One possible reason for the change is that today’s young people read and write many short messages on Facebook and on their cell phones, but they rarely immerse themselves in books anymore.

(In addition to not immersing themselves in books, kids might also be participating less in involved conversations and other kinds of meaningful verbal interaction. Very young kids for instance are now being exposed to e-readers and e-books – a development that might be problematic if parents rely too heavily on them for story time. Some research shows that parents reading to kids from e-books tend to interact less with them about the story itself and ask them fewer questions than parents reading to kids from print books. That’s even assuming the parent is sitting and reading with the child, and not handing the child over entirely to the device and its captivating animations and sound effects.)

The brain could be adapting to deal with digital technology on a regular basis but there’s still a place (maybe increasingly unrecognized) for mental processing that isn’t fast-paced: rumination, patience, the ability to follow the developments of a complex verbal argument. People describe our world as “fast-paced,” and in many ways it is, but not everything about the world and our way of living, thinking, and relating to others is fast-paced (or ought to be).

Reading comprehension shortcuts

After a plane crash, where should the survivors be buried?

a. at sea
b. in their hometowns
c. it’s up to the loved ones, not a matter of general opinion!
d. why would a survivor need to be buried?

Did you realize before getting to choice D that the question was problematic?

If as a reader (or listener) you want a brief discussion of why it’s a good idea to concentrate on the text and avoid distractions, turn to this article.

If as a writer you realize that readers are going to skim anyway, and you want to reduce the chance that they’ll make comprehension errors, read the article for a few insights.

One important thing to realize about sentence processing is that as we’re reading a sentence our brains are already coming up with likely interpretations or meanings based on the sentence context and on our past experiences with language and the world at large. Sentence interpretation is an ongoing process – we don’t wait until we reach the end of a sentence to come up with a meaning for it. As we’re coming up with possible meanings, the sentence keeps unfolding, and some of those potential meanings have to be discarded in favor of new ones… that’s assuming we detect and process the words that contradict our favored meaning. When we’re tired or distracted, we might latch onto a likely meaning based on the general context of the sentence and ignore any word that contradicts it.

With the question on airplane survivors, many of us ignore the word ‘survivor’ in part because the phrase ‘plane crash’ at the beginning has already conjured up scenarios of mass death and no survivors, so we might skim over the word ‘survivor’ without truly processing what it means; the word ‘buried’ at the end seems to strengthen our initial interpretation of 100% fatalities and that the question must be entirely about people who have died.

Educational resources for kids with dyslexia

Eight sites worth a visit if you’re looking for resources – including worksheets, suggested activities and games, and other educational advice for parents and teachers – helpful to children who have dyslexia. (Updated July 2018.)

1) American Dyslexia Association Free Worksheets
Over 1500 free printable worksheets targeting different skills areas.

2) Reading Resource
Links to worksheets, suggested activities, and information on dyslexia.

3) Strategies for Summer Reading for Children with Dyslexia
Advice on encouraging reading and setting up a summer reading program.

4) Dyslexia Online
List of links introducing and discussing dyslexia, with some teaching tips as well.

5) Dyslexia Tutor
Blog with updates on research and educational developments and insights.

6) Dyslexia Classroom Resources
A compilation of dyslexia classroom resources including sites providing worksheets, ideas for activities and games, and advice for teaching strategies that could be used by both teachers and parents.

7) The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity
Includes a pages for parents and educators with advice on teaching kids and cultivating their well-being. Also emphasizes the strengths of kids with dyslexia.

8) Dyslexia-related FAQs from Reading Rockets
Contains further links to pages with teaching strategies, resources for finding tutors, and other information.