Here’s Jessica’s so aptly put observation, “When I first read GP, I think I cried when Philip died. I had one of those silly hopeful moments like, but surely they turned him right, he'll come back, right? Ugh, I'm so sensitive. In some ways, I still grieve Philip, and that kind of sadness is why I've walked away from some authors who tread too heavily on my emotions. But Anita has me hooked. I WANT to cry with her and celebrate with her. I want my emotions trampled with hers so I can feel her sober triumph when she succeeds in vanquishing evil one little perpetrator at a time. I feel the same way about Princess Meredith in Hamilton's fay series. Hamilton is brilliant at writing emotion and perfecting the balance between sad and happy, hard and soft, black and white. It's why I read her.”
So why is it that we’re willing to endure some truly painful experiences with some characters but not others? What makes Anita Blake so sympathetic or simply someone we want to endure with until she succeeds? What makes her and characters like her stick in our hearts?
Obviously, Anita is only one example of many such characters. Off the top of my head, the characters that I know resonated with audiences enough for them to endure a good amount of pain and sadness for that I too have come to love are Harry Dresden from Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, many of the characters from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire like Daenarys Targaryen, Jon Snow, or Tyrion Lannister, Frodo and Sam from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Anyanwu from Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed, Ender from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and the unicorn in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. And to prove I do occasionally read outside the speculative fiction genre and to give some other examples: Corrie Ten Boom from The Hiding Place, though it is a biography but very compelling, Karana from Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Erik from Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. Erik is also quite emotionally compelling in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version of the tale as well. These are all books, whose character’s my heart soar and break with, that I cannot bring myself to sell or give away. If I want to share their rich and wonderful stories with another, I tend to buy a new book and give them that.
But what sets these characters apart? In short, they are all compellingly human, and while they may stoop to some truly horrendous deeds such as Tyrion or Erik, we understand why, and because that why is so rooted in the emotions we all feel—sorrow, longing for acceptance, loneliness, the need to survive—we understand them.
But there is one more vital element necessary to ensure that such characters surmount that high peak of endearment. While we may understand some level of the dark thoughts or acts of a character and will tolerate them to a certain extent, while our hearts may hurt at their suffering, we must also see something admirable in them.
Anita obviously cares for human life, even if she’s disgusted by what that human life chooses to associate with. She will risk her life, comfort, and pride because of her compassion for others. Wouldn’t we all like to have someone like that fighting for us? So, for her, we will suffer because we want to see her sacrifices eventually rewarded.
Erik is a monster more in action than in anything wrong with his physical appearance. He never thinks twice about committing murder, issuing threats or demands, or kidnapping, yet the pure kiss of a young, maiden singer out of love can make him weep and repent all his wrongs. But the brilliance of Erik really comes in that, when Christine kisses him and he abandons his schemes and sets her and Raoul free, it’s believable and heartbreaking. The book and the musical present rather different images of Erik, but they both convey the deep anguish of a lonely and tortured genius who will do anything to have someone to love and, just maybe, might eventually love him in return. It is this love, though twisted, that we see in Erik that transports him from despicable villain to sympathetic antihero.
I could go on and on over these characters among others, but these two capture the most important essence of what is so crucial in creating a character that readers will walk through hell with.
There’s just one last key: don’t shy away from revealing the character’s emotional reaction to painful circumstances. Unless we readers feel with the character, we will not develop that emotional connection.
What characters have you been willing to walk through hell and back with? What characters have you not? Why?