February 23, 2013 in Dag

Is there anybody in there?

Firstly, I have to thank Jim Murdoch who gave me the idea for this post via a comment he left on my post last week.

Thanks, Jim.

Last week I talked a bit about characters, and how I like to base the qualities for my characters on the general bonkersness of people I encounter. Jim made an interesting point in his comment about the fact that often the central character is far less interesting than the other characters that circle around them. Jim gave the example of US sitcoms, and one of my favourites, Seinfeld, is probably a classic example of this. But I think there are lots of examples that illustrate this principle.

My favourite examples I like to use when describing this idea are Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter – which I’ve always seen as kind of interchangable – I’d love to see a mashup where Frodo and Harry join forces to defeat Darth Vader.

When you think of the main characters, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, and good old Harry, what comes to mind? Not much. There’s not a lot to them. I guess they’re kind of brave and stolid – they fight hard and don’t give up. But there’s not much else you can say about them. They’re not that clever or funny, and they don’t have unusual character quirks. When it comes down to it, they’re kind of boring.

So what do you make of that? Is that an oversight on the part of the writers to create such bland central characters? I think not. I actually think it’s completely intentional, and it’s actually a highly effective storytelling device. 

I see these characters as kind of like a blank page. Readers can project whatever qualities they like onto them, making it easy for a broad range of readers to identify with them. This makes them really effective as “windows” into a story, allowing readers to become more fully immersed. It also helps the personalities and eccentricities of the supporting characters to shine more strongly.

Because of this, the name I like to use to describe these characters is “blank heroes”. And when I look at my stories, I can see it’s a device I make use of as well. Neville Lansdowne is definitely a blank hero (maybe he’s not much of a hero when it comes down to it). So are Magnus Mandalora and Kriffle the Flidderbug. Come to think of it, pretty much all my central characters so far would qualify as blank heroes.

It’s such an effective device that it’s easy to fall into it too readily. With some other stories in development, I’m seeing if I can break the mold and come up with some less blank central characters. We’ll see how we go.

Have a great week.

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