Reading an interesting post recently on the estimable Story Ape’s blog got me thinking about the relationship between fictitious characters and readers — main characters, known in some circles as “protagonists.”
Some characters are primarily vehicles by which a reader may experience the events of a story. The character is a type — an amateur sleuth, a woman seeking romance, a young person on a perilous quest. Their physical characteristics and personalities may be specified, but they’re actually elaborate costumes. Readers climb in and they’re there — solving the mystery, finding romance, or surviving the perils of the quest.
In other works of fiction, characters are equipped with complex personalities and backgrounds. Their needs and conflicts are not immediately evident. The reader must get to know them in order to discern their issues. It’s quite possible readers may not be able to identify with these characters; they may not even like them, but if the author has done the job right, the reader will find the character and his or her situation interesting enough to keep reading the book.
The “wearable” character is generally associated with plot-driven genre fiction; the “get to know” protagonist is more often typical of character-driven literary fiction. Readers have different expectations for these character types; getting acquainted with the character before you know what might happen to them requires some tolerance for uncertainty on the reader’s part. Writers of literary fiction must make their stories sufficiently alluring to keep readers hanging out with their characters.
I’m fairly sure authors don’t decide, as they begin writing a story or novel, which of these types of characters they will create for it. They usually do know whether they’re writing genre fiction or literary fiction. Characters evolve accordingly.
It doesn’t have to be an either/or. Really well-written works feature complex characters and compelling plots. Readers decide unconsciously whether to become a character and ride their rollercoaster, or to observe and ponder the character’s dilemmas.
The four novels of my Herbert West Series have five different narrators — six, actually, because Herbert West is quite a different person from Francis Dexter. Each of these people has his or her own style: Charles Milburn, diffident librarian; Andre Boudreau, amnesiac Acadian; Margaret Bellgarde, widow of the Great War; Herbert West, amoral scientist, who becomes Francis Dexter, wounded healer; Alma Halsey, disaffected journalist. And The Nexus, one of the short story supplements to the series, is narrated by eccentric professor and sometime occultist Professor Augustus Quarrington.
I’m thinking all these different narrators may be somewhat disconcerting for readers who expect more uniformity among books within a series. And I’m sure not all readers have found it easy to slip into these characters and share their lives. Over the course of the series, however, they have a good selection from which to choose.
The books include elements of different genres and of literary fiction. Some readers may find the fit a little uncomfortable. I am biased, of course, but I can honestly say no one who spends time with my characters will be harmed by the experience, and some may be entertained.
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