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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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