Credibility: stories live or die based on this factor.
Yes, yes, you're wondering what happened to things like plot, setting, pacing, and style. All of these things are important, but I'd like to start with the all-important factor of credibility. As it is such fertile ground for writing no-nos, fantasy literature will serve as the example. After all, when you're dealing with things like vampires, gods, nether realms, demon lords, and, god forbid, unicorns, you have already struck a blow against credibility, given that these things do not exist in our daily lives. The other reason that I choose the fantasy genre is because it is the most prone to the single greatest offence against credibility: the dreaded, awful, unforgivable Cardboard Cutout Character (hereafter referred to as the CCC).
The CCC is not, mind you not, to be mistaken for a flat character. Flat characters are those static personalities who are not changed by the Events of the Story. This does not mean they do not or cannot change, only that they will not change in the current project. To pull the scientific method in for a moment, you might consider flat characters to be the control group for a literary experiment. These are often necessary and markedly different than CCCs. In fantasy stories, tavern-keepers and inn owners are often used as flat characters, probably because they are so well suited for it. Flat characters can be reliable sources of normalcy, or whatever passes for normalcy in the context of the story. This helps to build credibility because it helps the reader trust that there is some internal consistency to the world being built for them.
Here is an example of how a tavern-keeper might be expected to respond at the beginning and end of a story.
Beginning: "Ho, Laxnar. It's been two years since I last saw you. How did that situation with the Darishan princess turn out?"
In three lines it is established that there is a history to the world, this tavern-keeper and Laxnar have known each other in the past, and, while Laxnar may or may not remember the situation, the tavern-keeper does. History establishes credibility because it offers reference points. While the reference points may mean nothing to the reader, the fact that they are included supports the belief that there is a prevailing order to the story's world.
End: "Ho, Laxnar. Only two months this time. What happened to that lovely girl you left with?"
Again, the history is validated, demonstrating that these characters do not exist in a vacuum of random events. This provides a sense of continuity. Characters are revisited and this one cares, if only in the most trivial fashion, what has happened in the life of this acquaintance. Now, while our hero, Laxnar, has been off righting wrongs, averting apocalypses, or slaying fell dragons, by all appearances nothing has happened to the tavern-keeper. He is a stable point on which we can depend. This is the function of a flat character.
The CCC, on the other hand, does not change over the course of the story, not because nothing has happened in his or her life, it wouldn't be much of a story if nothing happened, but, insanely, in spite of the happenings. The sin of the CCC is almost invariably, but not exclusively, committed when crafting the hero in a fantasy tale. Since heroes are typically portrayed as being similar in nature to we mere, mortal, human beings, it would stand to reason that their experiences would alter them; yet, this does not happen.
Here is some dialogue that one could expect from a CCC. It is the beginning of the story and our hero is facing his or her first challenge.
Laxnar says, "Stay thy hand foul villain, for I am Laxnar, invincible wielder of the Doomsdagger, vengeful hand of the Wargoddess Ishir."
With those lines we've established Laxnar's general personality and position in life. Let's move to a point halfway through the story, when Laxnar's lovely companion, whom he has inevitably fallen in love with, has been murdered in some grisly fashion. Laxnar is now confronted with her murderer, an evil wizard.
He says, "Stay thy wand, evil sorcerer, your enchantments will not avail you against me. For I am Laxnar, invincible wielder of the Doomsdagger, vengeful hand of the Wargoddess Ishir."
Now, barring some curse that forces him to say this every time he goes into battle (there isn't one, by the way,) the death of his companion seems to have had no affect on Laxnar whatsoever. In fact, the only thing we learn is that he knows a synonym for the word wizard.
Now, let's flash forward to the end of the tale -- not quite to the epilogue, curse of the modern fantasy writer -- but the point where the final battle has been joined. Laxnar is alone, having averted whatever calamity was about to befall his world, but in the course of it all, his beloved was murdered, his aged father has died, his home has been razed to the ground, he's broke, his horse is dead, he's in the middle of a wasteland, and he has no food and only one sip of water left, with no apparent means of getting more food, water, or another horse.
He says, "Behold, I am victorious. No force of this world can stand against my might. For I am Laxnar, invincible wielder of the Doomsdagger, etc., etc."
Since it is apparent that no amount of pain, sorrow, privation, or exterior pleas for common sense can ever force this dim bulb to evolve, it does allow the writer to spin Laxnar tales indefinitely. However, it destroys the credibility of the story. Since all stories are people stories (it's true, and don't let any college professor convince you otherwise), readers are always trying to relate in some fashion to the characters in the stories they read. With a CCC like Laxnar the reader can't do that because Laxnar never gets anywhere. He might be brave beyond reason, have titanium cojones, and be unbeatable in a fight, but who can relate to that? He is still essentially the same. No real person could hope to survive what Laxnar went through, but no one who even resembles a normal human could go through all of that and still have exactly the same self-perception.
While this tendency to employ CCCs is not exclusive to the realm of fantasy writing, it appears there a great deal and for a very specific reason. Fantasy has been called a fiction of imagery. In life, we gravitate to simple images that convey larger amounts of information, to symbols. Images like the Christian cross, the American flag, hell, even the McDonald's giant, yellow M are all imbued with representative powers. When viewed they are interpreted as thoughts and ideas. If you really look at it, the cross is nothing more than a stylized t; yet we associate it with sacrifice, love, redemption, forgiveness, or perhaps some less pleasant things, depending on your spiritual orientation.
Fantasy relies on images and symbolism to depict epic struggles between cosmic forces of good and evil; this leads, eventually, into forcing characters into cookie-cutter molds. Writers often wind up trying to make their heroes, and often their villains, into symbols that represent these roles of ultimate good and ultimate evil. Heroes are forced into archetypal roles. We want our hero to represent all the qualities we would most value in a hero: loyalty, honesty, physical prowess, intelligence, compassion, and even God-like powers. Unfortunately, in giving our hero such qualities, we make them unreachable, unattainably perfect, inaccessible and not credible. Through being empowered in such a fashion they become ideals rather than characters, and while having ideals might help define a character, ideals alone do not make a good character.
Good characters are faulty, with truckloads of quirks and imperfections. A hero need not be all that spectacular. In point of fact, heroes can be more effective if they are downright loathsome. A good example of this would be the hero of Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books.
Thomas Covenant has leprosy. He's bitter and disinclined to become involved with or even believe in the events going on around him. He is at times rude and self-serving. This character would never win an award for good disposition. He doesn't brim with kindness or compassion. He whines a great deal. He is, however, an interesting character. He's accessible and human, despite his occasional God-like powers. He isn't a terrible person, but has been dealt a tougher than average hand of cards. In his situation most people would be whining, rude, self-interested, and not overly interested in the things going on around them. It is through his many faults that he is given depth. The events of the story leave their impression on him and affect decisions he makes later. He does not meet every challenge, as a CCC would do, with a cry of: "I am Thomas Covenant, behold the greatness that is me."
CCCs are easy to create because they only have to react in a limited way. They don't challenge the senses or sensibilities of a writer. However, as the least accessible and least credible kinds of characters, they aren't worth much. The best kinds of characters are the fault-filled kind, because they can evolve and we can experience that evolution with them as readers.
Copyright © 2003 Eric Dontigney
Eric Dontigney is a full time college student who has been sampling the social sciences. Recently, he has been revising volume one of a planned two volume contemporary fantasy as well as trying to finish a first draft of a literary novel over the current semester break. For more about him and his work, see his website. To contact him, send him email at email@example.com.