Character-Driven Fiction

By Savannah Bell

What makes evocative fiction? Some would argue it’s a compelling setting, something either mystical or deeply grounded in reality. Perhaps it’s realistic dialogue, or maybe, satirical speech that allows for subtext. It could be a strong voice–confident in its messaging. 

While all of these things, I believe, definitely contribute to the quality of a good story, I believe they fall flat without a proper attention to character. In a genre dedicated to capturing what it means to be human through a fabricated reality, it is at the utmost importance that the vehicles it employs, the characters in question, must represent what we believe to be essential to personhood. 

I have read a great deal of well written, compelling storytelling with terribly crafted characters. This writing never captures my attention for long. Twilight, for example, was a novel I clashed with. I deeply enjoyed the story in a lot of respects, I knew not to take it too seriously, I enjoyed Stephanie Meyer’s voice, and I thought that young, foolish, and dangerous love was an enticing concept. The stakes were well developed, the imagery was pleasing, but something was wrong. I hated Bella Swan. I hated her whininess, her self-absorption, and her delusion. So much so that I never read another book in the series. 

Twilight, although a modern cult classic, and beloved by many, was never a novel I considered to have a strong sense of literary merit. And it wasn’t because it was a book written for teenagers— it would be reductive to say that literature in that field is holistically juvenile or poorly written. It was because of the shoddiness in the creation of Bella’s character. She didn’t depict the average teenage girl at the time, she was almost comically insecure, to the point where it appeared patronizing. Everything I found to be charming about the novel was completely disregarded when I considered the unlikability of its protagonist. 

When I think of the writing that has moved me most strongly, works that I would describe as resonant, I think of the internal life of the characters they depict. I credit Simone de Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed for completely reshaping the way I see the world. The novel is humble in its plot progression, written through the diary entries of a woman who recently discovered her husband’s infidelity. The voice is entirely conveyed through the protagonist’s internal monologue, and it is absolutely beautiful. The way in which Beauvoir crafts the characters in her novel, the protagonist, her husband, her family, and the woman her husband is courting, it almost seems impossible not to resonate with each one— to understand them, on some essential level. 

Beauvoir’s novel is not the only one, however. With strongly crafted characters comes an allowance for other aspects of a story to become more subdued. In Jeffery Eugenide’s The Virgin Suicides, aside from the dramatic deaths of the Lisbon sisters, not much is depicted other than the secondhand documentation of the girls. But it works. Surrounding a central theme of the sacrifices of girlhood, Eugenides allows everything he finds to be haunting about the male gaze to be demonstrated simply by watching the novel’s central characters exist and interact with each other. Bret Easton Ellis, often employs a similar strategy, with novels such as Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction satirically depicting the mundanity and frivolity of young people and their relationships with a subtle grace, and little groundbreaking or dramatic action. 

Fiction has always appeared, to me at least, as an avenue for exploring what is complex and strange about personhood with the creative freedom both to represent the behaviors and actions of the people most central to the writer, and to defy what is already known and understood about reality. The beauty of the genre balances between its lack of limitations and artistic fluidity as well as its necessity to conform to certain conventions, like understandable structure, proper grammar, etc. 

Character is what gives a piece its spirit. Lifeless, uninspired people render an interesting plot or a strong concept worthless, because if a reader cannot see a semblance of self within a piece, they are left with nothing to relate to. Above all else, I advocate for characters that make the reader feel something. Good, relentless, empathic characters. Vindictive, morally impermissible, flawed characters. Above all else, any character that will elicit a meaningful, emotional reaction from the reader.

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