Characters we love AND hate!

by Deborah Cullins Smith

Why do my daughters always do this to me? I don't have -- or for that matter, WANT! -- cable television. I have a huge movie collection, which gives me the freedom to watch what I want, when I want, without commercials, and I can fast-forward past any unsavory clips if I'm offended! But my girls feel duty-bound to keep me apprised of the newest, hottest series available on prime time. They both agree that "Grey's Anatomy" is the best new series on the block -- now in it's 3rd season. Well, okay -- it's not 'new' anymore. But it's new enough that Daughter #1 has Season 1 and 2 on DVD now. I've been crying my way through #2 for the past week, and I encountered a startling revelation as I knitted my way through about 5 episodes.

Season 1 was basically character introduction. Five young interns begin their residency in a hospital in Seattle. Meredith Grey is the main character. Mommy was a brilliant surgeon at this same hospital, so Meredith has some big shoes to fill. But Mommy now has Alzheimers and rarely even recognizes her, a fact that Meredith tries very hard to hide from her coworkers who still idolize the famous Ellis Grey. Then there's ambitious, competitive Christine, who is about as lovable as a barracuda. George, a cute, cuddly, insecure sweetie, has an enormous crush on Meredith, but she is already having a fling with one of the residents known as Dr. McDreamy. Yes, you've undoubtedly seen Patrick Dempsey pictured on the front of People magazine or any one of a dozen other tabloids with that particular little tag! We also have fashion-model-turned-surgeon Izzie, a goofy blond you have to love just because she tries so hard to be everyone's friend. And the egotistical Alex really needs a close encounter with a baseball bat, preferably upside the head. And just as Meredith makes great headway in her relationship with McDreamy, Season 1 ends with the appearance of his wife. Abrupt end of affair.

Yeah, this isn't a series I should probably recommend, particularly to an illustrious group of Christian writers! But bear with me --- I really DO have a point to make.

As I watched Season 2 last week, I developed some pretty harsh opinions about some of the characters. McDreamy's wife, Addison, I labelled as a cold-hearted, calculating witch (with a capital 'B'...) and she deserved to be dumped. McDreamy was crazy to even contemplate giving up Meredith for this woman. She didn't deserve a second chance. And Meredith more or less proceeds to go from one man to the next in Season 2, which didn't exactly endear her to my heart after all. She's a sympathetic character, but give me a break! There are other ways to deal with heartbreak (believe me, I KNOW...) than to bed-hop.

Christine is still hard-boiled, but she has a blunt directness that I have to give grudging respect. However, when her boyfriend, one of the hospital's top surgeons, is hit by a stray bullet, Christine can't handle it and pretty much bails out emotionally, leaving this poor guy to deal with some severe neurological damage to (of all things) his hand. I wanted to go through the screen and shake her.

George finally finds a woman who adores him, which makes up a little for the fact that Meredith still thinks of him in a brotherly way instead of a 'lover-ly' one. But I can't say that I'm favorably impressed with this gal, because she just seems to be a little too trashy. And Izzie falls for a patient in need of a heart. But a heart becomes available, and the coin-toss falls between her patient and another man who was added to the national register only 17 seconds quicker. Izzie, showing the effects of too much peroxide, cuts the cord -- literally -- between her patient and his life support! When he crashes, she can honestly (in her shattered judgment) state that her patient is more critical than patient #2 --- and she manages to 'steal' the heart.

By now, you are sick and tired of this night-time soap opera and are probably drumming your fingers on your desk, wondering if I'm ever going to get to my point. So I'll try to rally my thoughts and put you out of this roller-coaster misery!

I liked alot of these characters in Season 1, but by the end of Season 2 .... well, it was tempting to try to "adjust" them by taking a baseball bat to my tv screen. And there were a few that I utterly detested in Season 1, but by the end of Season 2 I had alot more sympathy for their plights. Just about the time I thought I had a character tagged, tried, and sentenced, something else would happen and my perspective changed. It's really hard to separate them into 'good' and 'bad' because EVERY ONE of them is both --- and neither. Just like real life.

In my own writing, I find that I tend to create 'good guys' and 'bad guys'. Of course, my bad guys are usually demons, so there really ARE no redeeming qualities! (Although I have had some comments that my demon Fumbleblot, soon to appear in "Light at the Edge of Darkness" is a far too sympathetic creature!) Personally speaking, I tend to be something of a 'people-pleaser' in personality. I was an only child, and the type of little girl who hated to displease or disappoint my parents, teachers, or other authority figures. Then I grew up and still tried to please not only Mommy and Daddy, but a husband as well. Now a divorced woman for many years, I feel freed from a little bit of that people-pleasing-in-vain stuff (because there are some people you will NEVER please no matter what you do), but I recently came face to face with the uncomfortable fact that my own Mother hates spec fic, and wishes I would "write something else". (that's a completely different topic, so I'll save it for another day....) Back to my point. In looking back at my stories, most of them contain characters with those same people-pleasing qualities. I relate to that, so I suppose that's what I characterize best. But, by and large, they are likeable!

"The Rider" features a young woman named Alice, a bit of a dreamer, tired of living under Daddy's strict rules, but for the most part, an obedient daughter. "Fumbleblot's Task" tells of woman dominated by her fears. "Allison" is a little girl who wants to meet her Mommy, even if only for a few minutes. I was more than a little disconcerted to discover that they all contain a portion of the people-pleaser in me.

What has this got to do with "Grey's Anatomy", after boring you to tears with all the sordid details? I've become emotionally invested in these characters, be they good, bad, or in-between. For the most part, they are each a bit of both. I've roared with laughter, and I've sobbed through hour-long crying jags. (when the plots have hit a little -- or alot-- closer to home than I was prepared to see....) I cheered them on, and gritted my teeth in frustration at their stupidity. I've applauded when they got it right, and screeched when they pulled stunts no moral person would think of doing. But I kept on watching!

When we can give birth to characters as brilliantly dimensional as that, we WILL be successful authors! Each and every one of us! That's my goal.


Anonymous said...

Very strong points, and I agree. We all live in shades of gray, and so should our characters. Yes, I do believe in absolute good and absolute evil, but should we relegate a villain and hero to only one or the other? It seems the readers will sometimes cheer for the misguided motivations just as often as the pure ones in hope for some redemption on the villain's part. Or in the grander scheme of it, maybe it is better to keep those characters in terms of "pro" and "antagonist" to avoid even setting them in our writerly minds as the good/bad guy. Funny how the perspective changes when you substitute those terms.


Daniel I Weaver said...

We definately want multi-dimensional characters. No one wants to read about the perfect character, they want to read about people that share some of their traits, experiences, feelings, mistakes, etc. And to write about real people, you have to have those see-saw characters that change and adapt to their circumstances and situations.

Andrea Graham said...

I don't do absolute evil unless my characters aren't human or are the incarnation of absolute evil (ie, Emperor Herald, from Heaven's Mark's series.) The rest are typically flawed well-intentioned people, who has been deceived on some level, or is misguided. Some simply have a theoretically good goal that, while not evil, does conflict with our hero's.

Adam's not so much into psychology as I am. Unlike my villains, whom often provoke more a desire to shake them or at worst, slap them, his tend to have you rooting for a bloody, painful demise, though he'll often give back story, where appropriate, that explains why they are so deplorable without excusing the behavior. We balance each other out quite well.

By the way, Deb, I'm with you on DVDs. We don't have cable, either, and would only watch broadcast under special circumstances. At the graham house, we're very careful what media we ingest and prefer to watch our favorite programs on DVD. If only we were so careful with food!

Steve Rice said...

I agree with this in general, though to some extent it depends on the focus. In The League of Superheroes, for example, a minor villain dies on-camera, so to speak, and although he is 99% evil, my goal is to make the reader hope that the narrator can reach him in his final moments. The main villain (roughly 110% evil) isn't really fleshed out, but then the primary issue in the story has to do with the superheroes' relationships with Genie and Uncle (both very conflicted characters).

So while I try for human characters, my primary question is, where is the focus? Who are the main characters? If I handle those points properly, the rest will take care of itself.


Andrea Graham said...

I think my husband would say that sometimes, you just want a character you can hate. He gets tired of writers like me who tend to dole out "villains" that are really hurting little boys acting out their pain in destructive ways. I mean, what are your favorite villains? Who do you love to hate?

But should we? :) My bad guys, the more they make you root for a painful end, the more likely they are to belong to the club that has a habit of reforming on the reader, in part to ask that question. If a character in a Graham novel/story does make you hate them, and they do die a painful death, you can generally thank Adam.

Donna Sundblad said...

In one of my current stories, I just found something good in my evil character. Not only does my brain have to make an adjustment, but the rest of the characters have to do the same. I'm still working out the details, but as I do I realize how much more real he becomes. A weakness? A virtue? Guess that will depend on whose POV I use.

We grow, just like our characters.