Oh, the humanity!

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
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'd been 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.

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 heroic protagonist who struggles with character flaws. Jo Nesbø's detective Harry Hole is a recovering alcoholic, who regularly lapses and is not averse to drugs—he's also 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 thread 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'm going to be jerking around my Cornish Detective's belief system in the next novel, for he's almost been stabbed to death at the end of the WIP. 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 in famous books, who show their humanity in inspiring ways?

What about evil inhumane villains?


My interpretation of this quote:

"The best stories don't come from good vs. bad but good vs. good."

...doesn't have much to do with virtue or a lack of virtue or one character being more human than the other... which of course ... is different from being humane or not being humane.

I interpret the quote as having to do with giving a character a choice between two things which are equally as good, and the sense of conflict which arrises from that circumstance. It would be the most confusing circumstance and put the reader into a place where they didn't know which to choose, which to root for. Not to mention, there's always some bad that comes with the good, or possible goods. What if one good is chosen and then deteriorates, how does that change the character's view of the good they passed up? Although, I don't think I do this good vs good in my writing.

I really like ambivalence.
@Kirsten said He's really into transformative suffering. He shows his humanity when he grieves after his true love, imaginary girlfriend.com, dumps him for vishnu.

How does his own suffering transform him?

Good versus bad or good versus good....I'm interested in how a person responds to a problem or situation for which there is no clear remedy or solution. That's at the heart of the thing I'm working on.Their response might make them a 'baddie' or a 'goodie', or simply not equal to the challenge, and we all win some, lose some and find a way to deal with it...or else fail to deal with it. And though I do think there is such a thing as wilful evil, ie a calculated maximising of another's suffering, human, bird, beast , any sentient being, and I'd not exclude arthropods, insects, slugs, worms etc from that classification, I look to the story to see what is the problem this character is struggling with. If I don't like them to start with, can the writer paint me a picture that makes me feel differently by the end? That does happen and that's the power of great story-telling.
@Kirsten said I think that the only way Chess will ever fully develop a conscience is if the protagonist grows old and dies and he carries around a mental copy of her to give him moral advice

Like an angel on his shoulder. If he is able to understand.

Lots of classic allusions there. Like a kind of Pilgrim's Progress.
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