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A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Soapbox: Larger than Life Characters and the Curse of the “Relatable”

Like nearly everyone else I became hooked  on The Killing.

The Danish drama series that held the country in thrall for 20 hour-long episodes was unusual in many ways. It was almost excruciatingly slow.  Not as gruesome as BBC4’s current European crime drama offering  – Spiral  (although admittedly I came to The Killing late, therefore missed the first episode – not to mention  my bugbear about why all crime drama needs to dwell so lovingly on young sexually attractive female victims … but let’s not go there right now). As Scott Pack recently commented, there was something refreshing about the first thing coming up when he Googled “Sarah Lund” being an image of her chunky nordic jumper.

It’s heartening that people responded so positively to simple old-fashioned qualities like brilliant acting (particularly that of the parents), good dialogue, complex plotting and the fact that the actor looked like real people who were believable as removal men or sleep-deprived detectives (as opposed to the US model of everyone looking like they could have just walked out of a salon and designer boutique combined).

However, what I did notice was the way that occasionally, peppered throughout this 20 part series was the odd reference to Sarah Lund’s homelife – and her being a not particularly attentive mother and her general failure to prioritise her other relationships.  For me – yes this is an interesting theme, but the way it was just chucked into The Killing was not insightful or interesting. And did – to me – seem like a cliché that tends to be trotted out about professional women in drama these days.

One of the series I have become addicted to in recent years is the US TV series, Damages. Set in a law firm that deals with class actions – leading it into stories that deal with the highest levels of corruption and exploitation, everyone in Damages does look like they just walked out of a salon. But I forgive them because they are rich lawyers and can afford that sort of thing. And because the series contains one of the hugest and greatest female characters I’ve seen on TV – Glenn Close’s glorious Patty Hughes.

It is Patty Hughes – moral and immoral, shrewd, ruthless and driven, complex and money-orientated, cleverer than everyone else in the series combined and – refreshingly – a charismatic and powerful women in her 60s who blasts all the younger women off the screen – that sent me scuttling off to rewatch all Glenn Close’s other films and what set me thinking about this piece.

Fatal Attraction. Dangerous Liaisons.  Glenn Close has a history of playing extreme, intense, larger-than-life and complex women. It is easy to argue that many of her roles are femme fatales – a certain cliché in itself. But these characters are also HUGE. No whispering and wimping out for Glenn. And if her characters end up destroying themselves in a male-dominated world – she always brings something else to the idea – a complexity, a hugeness – that makes her characters the most memorable part of any film.

But – back to Damages. Again, like Lund, there is a bit of back story for Patty Hughes and the theme of motherhood crops up inevitably. Why is Patty Hughes the way she is? Cue some rather dodgy stuff about babies…Damages being Damages, nothing is quite what it seems, and even this old cliché is clevered twisted BUT…

But but but…I am lead back to questioning why this sort of cod psychological explanation of human behaviour is seen to be so necessary in modern drama.

For the past year, I’ve been learning everything I can about screenwriting. Reading books, absorbing articles, reading screenplays and (of course) writing. And a word that I have come across an awful lot on websites and books this past year is the word “relatable”.

This horrible word is basically used to talk about making characters easier for an audience to relate to. We have to understand their motivations. Why they do things. What makes them tick. This will, apparently, make us “root” for that character and all that jazz.

For me, adding cod psychological explanations for why characters do the things they do can be in severe danger of reducing the character.

From Oliver Parkers 1995 film of "Othello"

This idea of explaining the motivations and drives of a character is a very modern one. Try and find the motivations of Lear or Macbeth and, despite the simple one-liners you were taught at school (or those famous “fatal flaws”), you will find it is not such a simple affair. Indeed, it is only by throwing what I was taught at school to one side that I finally, last year, started to get to really get to grips with the complex and difficult character that is Othello. Whilst Shakespeare can be seen as one of the greatest (and one of the first) creators of psychologically complex characters where the inner workings of the mind are explored (Hamlet anyone?) and as important as any modern offering – as soon as you study the stuff and start comparing the many different versions of the same plays…the plays just increase in their ambiguity.

There is an urge – through studying things to boil them down into simple straightforward ideas. But Shakespeare sidesteps these simplistic reductions, which is perhaps why he still has something to say about characters and themes and issues several hundred years later, despite the acres of analysis and literary criticism. The fact that his characters speak in some of the finest poetry ever written adds to the ambiguity, their scope and the multiplicity of interpretations they can hold.

These days, we are afraid of ambiguity. And poetry. We want to nail down our characters motivations in the crudest terms – X is a bad mother, Y has a problematic relationship with his father, A was abused as a child etc. Not only does this potentially reduce the scale of the character, it risks being rather patronising about the effects of actually going through major traumas. Besides, do one-off traumas – however huge – really “explain” our entire characters?

Many of the great books of the past contain characters that seem greater than the sum of their pages. Some of these are so big, so powerful, that people just can’t leave them alone – spawning entire industries, merchandise, films and sequels and burgeoning amounts of fan fiction.

The idea of a main character with series potential  is, of course, the holy grail of modern fiction.

But what is interesting about so many of the great characters of the past is their very unknowableness and the incomprehensibility of their thoughts and actions. In Wuthering Heights, when Heathcliff digs up Cathy or  wallops his head against a tree, we aren’t sitting there “rooting for him” and thinking “oh, poor thing,  it’s because he had such a rotten childhood” (although he did, in fact – but we still don’t bother about that too much). Gatsby’s power and magnetism comes as much from the fact we have no real idea what is driving him or who he is, as we guess at the bigger picture whilst seeing him only through the eyes of rather less interesting Nick Carraway.

It is interesting to note just how many of the great protagonists in fiction are seen only through the eyes of a much more boring character. As though the author deliberately takes the “relatable” bit and dumps it elsewhere. Because the relatable bit is…well, it’s rather small and ordinary really.

The small-scale prudishness and snobbery of Lockwood. The silly societal prejudices of Nellie. The cloddish good-hearted ordinariness of Watson. The benign dullness of Carraway. Because sometimes we don’t want to read that much about characters who are relatable. Too much like us. We want to read about characters who are larger than life, bigger than ordinary life – larger than whatever story contains them. We don’t want to have every aspect of their character “explained” with simple cod psychology because, in our hearts, we know that characters, and psychology, don’t really work like that. We want our great characters to be just slightly unknowable, intangible, tantalisingly out of reach…

Or is that just me?

This piece was partly  inspired by Jackie’s recent tub-thumping soapbox on epic novels.

To find out more about RosyB (she promises to wallop her head against a tree-trunk if you do) – go here.

Get involved in more cut ‘n’ thrust booky debate – everything from the rights and wrongs of historical fiction to why a certain Vulpes reviewer hates Twilight…see more Vulpes Libris soapboxes here.

To hear Moira doing her anorak bit on Wuthering Heights go here.

6 comments on “Soapbox: Larger than Life Characters and the Curse of the “Relatable”

  1. john latham
    April 20, 2011

    Ambiguity is important in literature in my opinion. Surely it is no coincidence that some of the greatest, most insightful writers have struggled with their own ambiguities and this has arguably helped them to attain psychological depth in their writing- Virginia Woolf/ Henry James etc. A very interesting soapbox. Thank you.

  2. Griff
    April 20, 2011

    Great article Rosy!

  3. rosyb
    April 20, 2011

    Thanks John and Griff.

    John, that’s certainly an interesting point you make about writers struggling with their own ambiguities.

    This piece was a bit of a thoughts “mash-up” shoving together all sorts of disconnected things I’ve been thinking about recently so I was surprised it came out as coherently as it did!

    It was only after posting it that I realised that in Damages we see Patty – not exclusively, but certainly most of the time through the slightly more “relatable” Ellen. Perhaps, carrying on that literary tradition of putting a more ordinary or “everyman/everywoman” type frame around the larger-than-life or extreme character so we can understand them without…err…completely understanding them.

    It’s a subject that fasinates me – particularly where female characters are concerned. I hope to do some more thinking on it and come back to this issue in the future at some point. Watch this space.

  4. Jackie
    April 20, 2011

    This was really interesting & provided much food for thought. I never realized that ambiguious characters are actually a lot more interesting than those with everything explained. It’s a curse of our modern world that we like everything neatly labeled, even if the label is pointless. I don’t think it makes us understand things better, necessarily, just makes us feel as if we have a grasp on it.
    The TV network canceled “Damages” last year, which I thought was a really stupid move. They probably wanted the hour for another male-oriented car chase series instead.

  5. Jodie
    April 21, 2011

    Maybe you’re describing a darker version of the manic pixie dream girl character type (unknowable, larger than life, usually decsribed by someone less out there) in a positive light….

  6. Pingback: Soapbox: Larger than Life Characters and the Curse of the “Relatable” (via Vulpes Libris) | The Calculable

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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