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Is It Better To Be A Blank Slate Or To Have Some Character?

Self realization by PricelessShotIn a recent blog post, Mark Lawrence commented on the trade offs of creating a blank slate character versus a more defined, idiosyncratic character. In the post (and I highly recommend reading the entire thing), Mark writes that for a number of fantasy readers, plot is of primary importance. For such readers, a vanilla protagonist is ideal, as it allows them to project themselves into the adventure. A unique character will be a negative for these readers because any specific character details that differ from those of the reader—say a belief or tic or even appearance—will make it harder for the reader to picture himself or herself in the story. And the more unique a character is, the more likely it will be that a reader may stop liking a character.

Of course, when it comes to characters like Lawrence’s Jorg Ancrath, a violent, immoral, and heavily scarred young man, he’s about as far from blank slate vanilla as it gets. He does not look like many fantasy readers, and unless you are reading the Broken Empire trilogy in prison or while on the run from law enforcement, he probably does not act like many readers as well. And yet, Lawrence’s books have sold incredibly well, despite the negative opinions of Jorg. How to explain that success? How can writers create characters that are compelling in some way despite being less than sympathetic?

Earlier this year, the Writing Excuses podcast (featuring Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, and normally Dan Wells, but he was absent this episode) offered what I think is an excellent to answer this question. The idea was to picture three measures for every character: one for competence, one for proactivity, and one for sympathy. Put each of these qualities on a slider. Push those sliders up to the max, and you have a Mary Sue or Marty Stu character. Push them all down to the minimum, and, well, that should be obvious. No one would stick with an incompetent, inactive, unsympathetic character for hundreds of pages. It’s the mix that is important. As one slider dips down, the other two can compensate. That way, if sympathy is low, there is something else to hook the reader—ability, humor, charm, something. As the story progresses, these measures can change, but they should probably always be a balance of highs and lows.

Prince of Thorns (cover art)Looking back at Jorg, his sympathy slider is low, but he is very competent and proactive. When Prince of Thorns begins, Jorg is thirteen, but he is already the leader of a band of mercenaries capable of butchering an entire village. He is a bad guy, but he is also very good at being a bad guy. If you haven’t read the books, you’ll have to take my word for it, but to avoid spoilers, his proactivity and competence sliders balance out his sympathy slider. This combination seems to satisfy the requirements of the Writing Excuses model, and Jorg is certainly a compelling character.

This balance of qualities seems to fit most anti-heroes and tragic heroes like Jorg. Let’s take a classic: Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Satan is not exactly the most sympathetic character. Yet his competence and proactivity sliders are way up. First off, he started a war against God and led a rebellious army. Even after his defeat, he keeps going: organizing his followers, planning revenge, travelling to Earth alone, and bringing about Adam and Eve’s fall though the use of his silver tongue. He’s beautiful, charming, and powerful, but also arrogant, a liar, and the freaking capital-D Devil. Satan is not vanilla, so those readers would have a difficult time walking in his cloven shoes, but ask anyone what they remember about Paradise Lost, and they will probably answer Satan. Not a bad trick.

Severus SnapeBut let’s move on to more modern works. Look at Elric of Melnibone from Michael Moorcock’s books, Roland from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Rincewind from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, or Severus Snape from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Look at John Constantine or Hellboy. I could go on—and I invite you to in the comments—but the important thing to note is that each of these characters does not have their three sliders set at equal measures. They are also far from a generic, blank slate that a reader can project himself or herself onto. And yet they are all compelling in their own way. Not every reader will want to embody those characters. But while sympathy might be difficult, these successful writers have managed to create a high degree of empathy while also keeping readers excited about learning what the character will do next.

Although I can understand the appeal of the generic hero model—perhaps the magic system is captivating, or the worldbuilding is rich, or there is something else to sweep me up instead of a character—just like my ice cream, I prefer variety to vanilla. Personally, I’ll take compelling and unsympathetic over vanilla every time, regardless of how fascinating the plot of Captain Vanilla’s story is. I don’t want to simply take on adventure. I want to see what an adventure is like through the eyes of another. It’s a bonus, a two-fer: a new adventure and a new way of seeing the world. The fact that I am not pulled out of the story even if—especially if—I don’t like the character is a special sort of magic that talented authors can pull off.

Title image by Midwest Living.

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5 Comments

  1. Kingaskean says:

    Great article.

  2. AJ Zaethe says:

    I’m really enjoying this three sliders concept. I think I am definitely going to use this. It can be so useful in so many ways. And it allows for an ease of access to certain forms of conflict. Absolutely brilliant. However, I must disagree with one idea on her…a blank slate character? I’m sorry, but that’s what video games are for. Unless you are talking more first person…but even then, how to get that rolling. I guess that could explain success of novels like twilight, but here is a problem with this. It breaks down the realism of the story. The world around them is lacking the reader’s interaction, it is as if the reader is just watching the world, rather than reading about a character who is interacting with it. This is a gigantic problem because it would see as if the proactive meter would be completely useless, and the the sympathy would also no longer exist. It just becomes competency. It also makes it so that the worldbuilding has no real impact. The character is no longer a product of where they are from, which is unrealistic. They have to have traits of their own being from that world. The only thing I can imagine this being ultimately used in is choose your own adventure.

  3. I agree on most points, but I feel there is a place for both blank slates and nuanced characters. It really depends on what kind of story the author is trying to go with.
    I found Roland to be much of a blank slate (although far from generic), since his appearance is not described much and he doesn’t voice many opinions/goals/emotions. While his character becomes more developed over the course of the series, he definitely starts about as blank slate as a character can get. He’s driven forward for no apparent reason other than to catch the man in black.
    The three sliders concept is great, and I think we writers can all use it.
    Excellent post.
    Try out The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima, if you haven’t already read it. It’s a beautifully written story that uses the cliche “coming of age story” and the blank slate character, yet is all the more powerful for it.

  4. Damian says:

    Well done article. I will use the slider for my next book.

    Great analysis.

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