Oh, the humanity!

How do you show the humanity of your characters?

There’s certainly a place for two-dimensional characters in a narrative if they’re only passing through. And, there’s much to be said for an uncommunicative monster relentlessly pursuing the innocent: no one much cares about the feelings of a shark, dinosaur or orc in Jaws, Jurassic Park and The Lord Of The Rings. But, if your characters are hanging around for a while, then they need some backstory or a current predicament that explains their behaviour.

I write in the Crime genre, which provides quandaries about getting the correct balance between internal thoughts & external action. It could be argued that one of the differences between literature and ordinary fiction, (including genre writing), is that literature portrays characters, but ordinary fiction is more plot driven.

I’ve read some crime novels where the protagonist and antagonist showed no doubt or emotion about a fatal conflict they were involved in. Such unrealistic writing doesn’t even qualify as hardboiled, which might be tough and unsentimental, but usually features a complex lead character who’s endured some tragedy that affects his actions; just think of Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca.

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Leo Tolstoy observed that “The best stories don’t come from good vs. bad but good vs. good.” If your antagonist, the baddy, has elements of decency, then they’re a lot more interesting than being evil through and through. The same applies to any protagonist who struggles with character flaws. Jo Nesbø’s detective Harry Hole is a weak-willed recovering alcoholic, not averse to drugs, who’s wildly disorganised with a chaotic love life that leads him into risky sexual encounters. His determination and desire to see justice done sees him through. For all of his weaknesses, it’s his love of his fellow man that endures.

The title of this post comes from radio journalist Herbert Morrison‘s coverage of the Hindenburg disaster, the conflagration that destroyed a zeppelin of that name in 1937, which killed 36 people as it tried to land in New Jersey. Surely, one of the most emotional commentaries recorded, with Morrison’s own humanity shining through:

Having your faith in humanity restored by reading a story is one of the abiding strengths of fiction. Remember the struggles of the characters in To Kill A Mocking Bird, The Lord Of The Rings, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter saga? The protagonists and antagonists were all confronted with challenges that damaged their bodies and exposed their souls. A lesson taught by all of these stories is that one’s destiny isn’t set in stone and that we shape our moral characters by clinging on to humanitarian beliefs.

I jerked around my Cornish Detective’s belief system in the last novel, for he was almost stabbed to death in the penultimate chapter and still in a coma at The End. This experience will make him mistrustful and more aggressive. His basic decency survives, as he’s a generous man with his time and money, and does what he can to protect the wilderness, but he’ll have an unpredictable edge in the future.

Do you have any favourite characters in your own writing and famous books, who show their humanity in inspiring ways?

William Zinser

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