There’s a phrase I’ve heard sometimes describing the characters in a book or story, and maybe you’ve heard it too, that when the characters don’t seem like real people, they are cardboard. I think we’re working through both a symbol and a metaphor here. The cardboard reference is meant to be a clever or poetic way of saying “flat”, though the substance of cardboard might also carry connotations of “lifeless”. When we call characters flat, we invoke the metaphor of shallow characters, shallow because there just isn’t much there, so that they don’t seem very real. Humans are complicated. Try having a relationship with one.
Does it really matter if fictional characters are flat? Can fiction be worth reading, or entertaining to read, with shallow, unreal characters? I think the answer to both questions is definitely yes. As a writer who takes this craft seriously, I’m not thrilled about that answer, but it seems true.
I wish all books were carefully crafted, but then again, I wish everything in life was carefully crafted. I think there’s no good excuse for mediocrity. Aside from my fantasy of thoughtful engineering, beautiful buildings, and poetically rich books, back here in the real world, a book with flat, unreal characters can be very successful, but a book that has complex characters but is not entertaining will struggle on life support amongst the literati.
I think there’s a bit of paradox about this. What do people most want to read about? On the whole, we seem to prefer books about our symbolic selves (other people). It’s not an absolute rule, but on the whole, people want to read about people. That doesn’t mean the characters have to seem especially real, though. Some genres of literature are so known for being entertaining that in many cases the plot of the story appears to overwhelm the characters. This absence of character depth can be true in some—not all—detective novels, westerns, or romances.
Of course the best ones, the ones that we think of as more serious literature, are able to remain true to the genre and entertain, but also have real, interesting characters. In many cases, however, a desire to know who could have killed the young movie star believing they were actually killing her sister will pull a reader through a book, even if the detective has a few personality quirks but not much more.
In such a case it looks like the development of the characters is not that important, yet if the story was not, at heart, about people, it would not be so popular. I wonder if maybe readers are applying their own imagination to fill out the characters.
Not so long ago, I read on a literary agent’s blog some advice that should in any case be obvious to serious writers. The agent gave an admonition that readers need to care about the characters. I agree with that, and I think it’s true in general, so perhaps some of the differences in books lies in what it means to “care about” a character. Maybe I want someone to realize his brother tried to reconnect but was unable to express his feelings after the trauma of war. Another reader just wants the protagonist to figure out who killed the young movie star.
Well-developed characters are one of the features of truly good writing. Maybe the creation of characters who seem real is celebrated because of the great pleasure we can have from reading that kind of writing. Or maybe part of the celebration is because it’s soooo damn hard to do it.
Literally every writer writers very badly at some point, and literally every writer writes badly from time to time right up until the end, even if they learn to delete it. When we write, “She saw him enter the room and sat up straighter,” we want that bit to say something about the character’s feelings, and to help slowly build up a sense of how this person reacts to the world. But of course that’s not enough. What else should we add? The color of her dress? The fact that when she picked it out that morning she was worried that she often feels nauseous after eating? Or merely that she ironed the dress carefully? Or we could include the fact that she was irritated from having sat waiting an hour for the man to come in. Or we might have her hold her hands in her lap to keep from waving them around, knowing she has a habit of gesturing too much and she realizes it can distract people. Maybe she smells the man’s cologne as he enters, the same cologne a professor once wore who criticized her harshly. Or maybe we should mention the color of her eyes, or the way she squints in the bright light coming through the window.
And maybe no matter how hard we try, in the end, it just won’t quite work. When she leaves the office later and is walking down the street, a wind will come along and pick her up to blow her away, because she is nothing but cardboard.