It’s the end of another semester of university, which means I’ve been inundated with marking and will likely remain inundated for the next fortnight. But I enjoy marking Creative Writing pieces – the sheer diversity of imagination never fails to impress me. I’ve been teaching Genre Fiction this semester, which means I get to enjoy some good science fiction, crime fiction, and horror. And I love seeing students improve over the course of the semester. All of this marking reminds me that it’s been some time since I did a post about writing. This week, I’d like to look at a crucial mistake that is often made when creating characters, one that is common to both literature and film, and how the problem can be overcome.
Creating strong, believable characters is the cornerstone of good fiction. Characters must undergo a change throughout the story; they begin as one person and are transformed by the events of the narrative, becoming a different person by the end. This is called a character arc. Their development is usually prompted not just by the events that happen to them, but their evolving relationships with other characters. Relationships are therefore essential to the story – characters are defined by the way they treat others. Even in television sitcoms, where characters are supposed to change little from episode to episode (think of Homer Simpson, who remains the same beloved yet oafish father throughout the entire series), characters work best when they are interacting with each other. However, when this interaction is restricted, and characters aren’t given the freedom to explore new relationships, their growth becomes similarly constrained.
Although I’ve come across this problem in several books, the best examples are from television, and I’ve explored these in detail below. These characters are often created as a bit of a gimmick – they are meant to fulfill one function, or generate a few jokes. Their role in the show is limited from the start. When that gimmick gets a bit stale, the writers realize they have a character who no longer has any purpose. They are limited by their inability to effectively interact with other members of the series.
The most famous example of this is the character of Raj Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory. One of Raj’s defining characteristics for most of the show’s history is his selective mutism – his inability to talk to women. This ongoing joke generated a few (stale) laughs in the first couple of seasons, when the only recurring female character on the show was their neighbour Penny. But when the cast expanded to include Amy and Bernadette, the writers were faced with a character who was not able to communicate to other members of the main cast. This severely limited his character development; not only was Raj incapable of meaningful exchanges with the female cast, but he was unable to form lasting romantic connections of his own. The writers applied a temporary solution, allowing Raj to talk to women when he’d consumed alcohol (or thought he had been consuming alcohol). This also generated a few laughs. However, this Band-Aid approach meant that in episodes when he was required to speak to the female cast, he had to have a bottle of alcohol sitting next to him. The joke became pretty tiring. It also gave the unfortunate implication that he was developing an alcohol dependency, a direction that was undesirable for the character.
By the end of season 6, the trauma of a recent breakup cured his selective mutism and allowed Raj to finally speak to women whilst sober. Although overcoming his mutism could be interpreted as being part of his overall character arc, the fact that his mutism existed in the first place – for the sake of a few cheap laughs – meant that his character has not progressed half as much as the others.
Another television show that provides examples of this stunted development is American Dad! The character of Klaus is a former East German Olympic ski-jumper whose brain was transferred into the body of a goldfish. Klaus began the series as one of the most outwardly antagonistic and vocal characters, always putting down other members of the Smith family. However, his physical location was always restricted to his fish bowl. Even in later seasons, as he scoots around the house in a glass of water, it becomes increasingly difficult to have scenes where he interacts with the other characters. As the show went on, and more action took place outside of the Smith family home, Klaus’s inability to appear in the scenes meant that his character took a diminished role. The central gag about Klaus – a man trapped in a fish’s body – meant that he was unable to adapt to scenarios outside that one-joke role.
American Dad! looked like it was making a similar mistake with Roger, the family’s abusive, alcoholic resident alien. In the first few episodes of the first season, Roger is confined to the attic and forbidden to leave the house. It looked like his interactions would be limited to the rest of the family, crippling his character development. But, in a stroke of genius, one of the writers must’ve realized that if they slapped a wig on Roger, he could pass as anybody. With each new wig came a new personality (and new neuroses), making Roger one of the most flexible and dynamic characters in the entire show.
The case of Roger provides a hint on how to overcome this problem. When creating characters, whether for television or film or prose, the writer must be mindful that their characters are given the freedom to explore the world, or have the world come to them. Having a character who is limited to a particular place, or only allowed to form relationships with a select few individuals, means that the character’s growth will be similarly stunted. The whole purpose of fiction is for the character to undergo a transformation. (Or, in the case of sitcoms, for the character to assert their personality under different circumstances.) Denying them the opportunity to have this transformative experience condemns them to being a tired gimmick.