Saturday, 23 February 2013

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.


  1. When I wrote my first novel there were a lot of influences running around my head but two I’m happy to acknowledge are The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—and really you’d be hard pushed to find a blander lead than Arthur Dent—and Kafka’s The Trial and, again, Joseph K. is really just there to get kicked from pillar to post. In both these cases the ‘hero’ is there to stand in for us. In all my books my protagonists are carried along by circumstances out of their control. I really don’t do heroes. I don’t do baddies either and I’m not sure I have it in me to create one. I know actors love playing them and there are some great ones out there but I’ll have to leave it to others to write them. You might try that as a jumping off point for a new project, it worked well for Dick Dastardly and Wile E. Coyote. In fact why not write a book where the laws of cartoon physics apply too? We had Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but not much since apart from maybe Cool World and the cartoon episode of Farscape. Consider that a request.

  2. Hi Jim,

    Yeah, Arthur Dent is a true blank hero and one of my favourites. Kafka is an interesting one. While I love his stories, I reckon he was not great at voicing characters - they all kind of ended up sounding the same - then again, maybe it's just the translation. Speaking of a book using cartoon physics, I think it's already been written - Toonopolis by Jeremy Rodden.

  3. Howdy. I ended up here because you replaced my book at #1 in free satire. But I like this discussion so much that I've decided to forgive you...

    And since no one has actually ever read my book, it seems fair enough.

    My "dag-lit" novel also has a main character who isn't nearly as fun as the supporting cast. I decided to quit worrying about it, but now you've made me see that it's okay -- perhaps even correct.

    Now back to my promo effort to get my #1 back.

    M. Sid

    1. Hi Mike,

      Thanks for the comment and welcome to the site.

      I don't think you've got too much to worry about me hogging the #1 free satire spot. I'm sure I won't be there for long.

      Hope you get some people reading your book.