Saturday, February 25

The Thin Line Between Provocative and Repulsive

There are so many characters and archetypes we know because of media and re-hashing, they become a part of the world around us. You might not have read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen but you may have heard an awful lot of references to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy or seen a movie which was based on a book which was inspired by Pride and Prejudice.

There are two quintessential characters who I have been interested in reading about first-hand: James Bond and Sherlock Holmes. I've not seen most of the film and television adaptations which these two characters have inspired but I still wanted to read about them straight from the authors' scripts.

Recently, I bought and listened to the audio book 'A Study in Scarlet' which is the first Sherlock Holmes novel. I enjoyed it and was keen to find the next installment. Luckily, it was available for free on Kindle. I read.

We all judge the characters we read about. How they act, how they treat other people, what decisions they make...it all affects our opinion of them. I was able to deduce from reading 'A Study in Scarlet' that Sherlock Holmes is very observant, patronising and has an obsession with hoarding his findings in a case until he can give his big reveal, something usually reserved for a cliché villain. In 'The Sign of the Four' I deduced that solving crimes was his obsession and when he was without a necessary conundrum, he wallowed in depression and turned to drugs.

Yes, Sherlock Holmes shoots up cocaine and he's still the quintessential detective. I thought, 'This is a well developed character. He may be exceptionally clever but he is far from perfect.' It proved that someone's drug habits do not define them. Few people think of Sherlock Holmes and then remember the needle marks all over his arm.

Of course, just because a character is well written and complex, doesn't mean that you agree with them or like what they're doing. Holmes can shoot up all the drugs he wants but if he pulls a gun on a black man for looking like - in Watson's words - a "savage, distorted creature" then it doesn't matter to me if the story is set in 1887, I don't really want to read on.

The ability to create evocative and layered characters is the sign of a good author, even if the character does something that irks or offends you. If a character gets under your skin, it's better than a character who bores you. Except...what if that character puts you off? I've talked about unattractive character traits before but what happens if a character does something that makes you stop reading the story?

That is the dilemma. You want to create a character who isn't made of sunshine and rainbows or shadow and sawdust...but you also don't want to write a character that rubs your reader the wrong way to the point that they can't read on. Where does being realistic to a character's actions and moods conflict with a reader's tolerance level?

All readers are different and we all like and dislike different things. We hate characters other people adore. We are drawn to some characters without being able to explain it. Some characters we want to spend our days with and others we want to shove into a rocket and launch into a supernova.

I don't want to send Holmes into a supernova but I am a little put off. I appreciate his character but I'm not compelled to read more about him. At least, not for a while.

You can't please every reader but when it comes to creating an evocative character, there is a wide range from bored and abhorred.

Are there any characters you appreciate despite their faults? What about ones that stopped you from reading?

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