Why Characters Are Better Than Real People
I have like five or six good friends. I think that’s fine. I’m all right, comfortable even, with that number. If you’re trying to tell me you have over a dozen good friends—and I mean good—you probably, just, I don’t know. You’re probably lying. Good friends, I’m talking. And you’re saying you have twelve of them? No.
Good friends are, in any case, hard to come by. Many people are selfish. They get in their own head and it’s sometimes hard to find their way out. The bad news is these people don’t make great friends. The good news is they can create great friends via writing books.
Authors have to be fairly self-obsessed if they’re willing to craft a 50,000+ word tome that is essentially a transcribed internal monologue. Imagine the arrogance it takes to write a book. While an author may be a jerk, a character they create may be a true gem.
Take Roald Dahl, for example. His first wife called him “Roald the Rotten,” and he was let go by his publisher for hilarious reasons pertaining to his bad behavior. The letter his publisher sent him notifying him of his dismissal is...pretty funny. Robert Gottlieb, an executive at Alfred A. Knopf at the time, wrote to Dahl, saying, “For a while I put your behavior down to the physical pain you were in and so managed to excuse it. Now I’ve come to believe that you’re just enjoying a prolonged tantrum and are bullying us.” Get all the details and the full letter here.
You can't see what he's doing with his hands. He's strangling a kitten. | Image Via Penguin Books
The point is that Dahl might have been a jerk, but he also created Matilda. Who doesn’t want to split a delicious chocolate cake with Matilda? Or Charlie Bucket. Or the BFG. He might not have had the capacity to treat his fellow human beings with a modicum of common decency, but he was able to recognize and craft kind and compassionate people in his books.
Right, but that’s not the only reason characters are better than people. People are complicated. Characters are less complicated. A person might wake up in a crap mood just because, and then intentionally cut in front of someone when getting on the subway so they can get to the one open seat. A character probably won’t do that because that would be deemed inconsistent or sloppy.
If a character is mean, then that character is probably the bad guy. You know that character will behave that way because that is their temperament. Real mean people, though, can inexplicably have good days. The same person who called you a dumb loser that one November night last year, standing outside of the bar, might later say, “You’re not so bad.” No. I’m not so bad. You are bad. You were bad when you called me a dumb loser. Why are you being nice to me now? Things are not so simple.
I prefer book characters, with whom what you see is exactly what you get. I want to get a beer with Ignatius J. Reilly. I want to go sailing with Edmond Dantes. I want to walk through the garden with the tenant of Wildfell Hall. Remus Lupin, Samwise Gamgee, Nao Yasutani, Qfwfq. THESE ARE MY TRUE FRIENDS.