Do We Need to Write Complex Characters?

I’m reading the first Harry Potter and the first Dune novel, finishing a chapter from one then alternating to the next, to see if there is any commonality between these two different and popular novels. To be frank, there’s a massive difference between the writing styles, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, with Dune containing greater depth and requiring more concentration. I did notice one commonality, the stories begin with extremely simple villains which have very little complexity (in Harry Potters case, not so much villains but bad step-parents).

We’re told that complex characters are better characters, but is that really the case? I hear many people talk about John Carpenter’s Horror movies, suggesting that the reason they work is the faceless nature of the villains. I doubt anyone would argue that Michael Myers is a particularly deep character. Carpenter was inspired heavily by Westerns, and one of the most highly regarded Westerns is High Plains Drifter, where the central character is a good example of an anti-hero, except he does not have the positive aspects of an anti-hero. He’s more a villain-hero and once again, is quite simple.

Next we can move to Game of Thrones, is Ramsey Bolton a complex character, is Joffrey, is Tormund, is Jon Snow? No, they aren’t. The list of characters I’ve mentioned so far is so diverse that finding commonalities is actually difficult. Myers and Clint Eastwood character in High Plains Drifter are mysterious, Joffrey is sufficiently sadistic and threatening to our main protagonists that every scene with him carries tension. Tormund is funny, and Jon Snow is admirable but prone to making mistakes, something which adds tension to every decision he has to make.

As I progress through these novels it is entirely possible that these characters will be further explained, and perhaps they will become more complex. Regardless, the point still stands. Excellent stories can be written about characters who are rather simple, and once thought about, there are vast numbers of popular characters such as this (Hannibal Lector comes to mind). Realistically, the only feature that all the listed characters have is that they’re interesting to watch or read, complicated or not. Something that serves the story, drives the narrative, that scares the reader or makes them laugh. Hopefully these novels are full of characters like that.

Stranger Things 3 (spoilers)

I’ve read so much serious scifi recently, that I’d almost forgotten that there is a long history of fun scifi. This type of scifi doesn’t have to have a deep plot, doesn’t really have to make much sense, and doesn’t require intense themes and a serious tone. Truthfully, fun scifi is probably more widely known than serious scifi, in the way that ET is more famous than Blade Runner, and Stranger Things is probably the most famous scifi show right now.

I should begin by saying that this type of scifi is not easier to write than the serious type. The characters are just as important, the plot needs to be interesting and whatever people might suggest, expressing fun in writing or direction is as much a style as any of Joyce’s. The characters should be interesting and humorous in their own way, the words used must convey both the sense of adventure and enough tension to stop the story feeling silly. If the story becomes too fun, if the characters become too funny, then we can lose tension and not care, for instance, about whether ET escapes at the end of the movie.

This brings me to something I noticed during the ending of Stranger Things. The show’s premise is objectively ridiculous. A bunch of children band together and fight against Government and alien forces, travel to alternative dimensions and infiltrate secretive Russian bases. None of this is possible, not really. It only makes sense sense in the context which the show establishes, that of 80s kid’s adventure movies and shows. The show manages to balance drama and fun, having moments of genuine threat for the characters and ‘rest’ moments, where something silly happens. The prime example is the never-ending story song, situated in the middle of the final episode, and minutes before two characters die. Some viewers think this was too much ‘fun’ and detracts from the emotional power of the final scenes, but I disagree.

The writers of Stranger Things understand the type of show they are making. They know that this is an adult film about children, which older children can potentially watch, so the show must contain a lot of child-like elements. Interrupting a crisis to sing a song, is the exactly the type of decision a child would make. Does it make sense, from a realistic perspective? No, but the show doesn’t. It does make sense in the context of a children’s adventure movie, and provides the perfect moment of fun, before the dramatic and consequential finale can begin.

The show has reminded me that I haven’t read enough of this type of scifi. I’m going to seek some.

Saying the Unthinkable

As writers, we are told not to talk down to our audience. We are told to assume that they are intelligent, and that whatever we can understand as writers, they can also understand. I would like to agree with this, as it would make me seem less elitist than I’m going to appear, but it is factually incorrect, and I value facts more than opinions.

This applies to many areas and starts with the most basic proposition; that a significant proportion of a country’s population can’t or won’t read to an adult standard. This is not intended to be offensive, it is simply an objective statement. The primary reason that books that are essentially teenage fiction are the best-selling, is that those are the books most of the population can read. I have a copy of Infinite Jest which I’m reading, slowly, and it occurred to me that a significant number of my friends would be incapable of reading a book with such complex sentences and paragraphs, and even more would consider the book too much effort. I’m not trying to say that such people are stupid, I’m trying to take a lesson about writing from this. If your fiction requires a higher reading level than that of a teenager, you are cutting a large portion of readers from your potential readership, and the higher the reading level, the more exaggerated this effect becomes.
Some books cut their market by requiring knowledge, of history, or science or politics. Some of them demand a knowledge of previous literature to be fully understood. Again, these things are no fault of the reader, but they are something a writer has to understand.

We are also told to write clearly, and to make sure we are understood, but we are counter advised that we should not spoon feed the audience, we should trust that they will understand the intention. I side with clarity on this one, there’s no issue in my mind with making things obvious, and my favourite support for this point is the film, Starship Troopers. If you watch the film, you will quickly notice that the film is a satire of militarism, is intentionally badly acted and cheesy. What you will not think is what many critics of the film thought upon its release, that it was a pro-fascist piece of art. Apparently, even Starship Troopers needed to be more obvious in its satire, and if that’s true then all art does.

To bring this together, I do agree with the general statement, do not talk down to your audience. My difference is that I think a writer has to have a good grasp of their intended audience, an understanding of that audience’s reading level, the kind of references they will understand and the problems they will encounter when deciphering the themes of a novel. When a writer knows that, they can adapt the fiction to the level of their audience. It’s not talking down, it’s talking at the correct level.

Concise, unfinished, or bloated?

I’ve started reading my third Stanislaw Lem book and of the three it is the lowest rated on Amazon. The reason’s clear to me; the book is a difficult read, takes a long time to explain concepts and has displayed very little advancement in the plot. The following quote exposes the problem to me, it follows an entire chapter explaining why new ideas are not accepted in scientific circles, ‘All that I write here is to that point’.

This problem is so noticeable to me that the three novels are rated, in my opinion, according to the pace of their plot and the amount of unnecessary descriptions. From lowest to highest scores on Amazon, it goes His Masters Voice, Solaris, and the Invincible. This further reinforces the standard advice that staying focused when writing a novel and cutting the fat produces better work, and I believe it’s important for a writer to think this way. If something can be said in ten words or a hundred, it’s usually better said in ten.

While I’m certain that this is a good belief for a novelist to have, I’m not so sure it’s a good belief as a reader. There will always be portions or books that a specific reader won’t like. For example, the popular and well-regarded manganese Death Note has a portion which I found boring in the middle, it’s the corporate plot, and everyone who I’ve lent the series to has stopped reading at that point. While that’s fine, no art is entitled to the viewer’s attention, it is essential to the plot, and does confirm how smart the main characters are. Addressing specific themes or plot lines will occasionally require uninteresting passages, and for me, I try to give the writer some breathing room, trusting that the boring segment will be proven necessary.

This is the real rule for writing. We shouldn’t always follow the belief that less is better, it depends on the context. While the statement, “Christopher ran to the train and boarded it. He sat and waited until it reached the destination.”, does accurately represent a man riding a train towards a final confrontation, any tense scene requires establishing, perhaps revealing the man’s thoughts or describing the journey in a way which anticipates the confrontation. As a reader, we have to trust that the writer is using these moments correctly, and as a writer we have to establish that trust, and not lazily abuse it.

Hard to be a God (spoilers)

This is a Russian translation so I won’t review the style contained therein. The novel is fairly simple and there’s little to note, other than the sci-fi nature of this adventure story and the communism influenced worldview of the main character. I do think these could be discussed but I’d rather mention the most striking thing, that this novel is a prime example of needing to show something horrible, rather than implying it.

Throughout the novel, Anton (Rumata) is having problems maintaining the emotional distance required to be a neutral observer on a foreign planet, a place called Arkaner, which is medieval Europe on a different planet, essentially. As the country’s culture declines culturally, scientifically, and artistically, Anton is struggling to control his disdain for the planet’s population and their inability to match his expectations. He feels helpless, unable to make the society advance and slowly succumbing to the anger that surrounds him.

The novel ends with his girlfriend being killed, and him subsequently unleashing his rage. An epilogue follows, explaining that he survived and butchered the people responsible, despite that being pointless in terms of the society’s progress, but we don’t see the explosive violence, we do not see Anton finally become as bad as the people around him, and we do not see the devolution of his thoughts. This was unsatisfactory for me, I thought the novel was unfinished. Why did I think that, even though I’m usually comfortable with implied events?

His character arc wasn’t finished. If I had read Anton’s thoughts as he behaved so savagely, I would’ve seen the transformation, rather than have it explained. That’s the rule I’m taking from this ending. If something horrendous is important to the character or story, then the reader must see it. The character arcs and narrative should always take precedence over sensibility.