Endearing Characters

Today, I conducted my first job interview. I was part of a gauntlet of employees interviewing candidates for an open position within my company. I cannot speak to how this one candidate did it, but I am fairly certain that we were all impressed. We each had our takeaways of positives and negatives, and the odd thing is one person’s perception of this candidate was very different from the next, in large part because we were all looking for how this candidate would impact our sphere of influence. During our debriefing, the entire episode had me thinking about endearing characters. What makes a character endearing? I’d have to say that the creation of endearing characters is one of high risk, high reward. Yet again, I will call upon a couple of old standbys to describe characterization.
The subsequent tangent leaves me thinking about what I should read next, as well as how I can improve my characterization.

As a reader, I value books that are epic in scope. I love ensemble casts, and enjoy imagining Gary Sinise in one role and James Roday in another. Two of my favorite books in recent memory have been Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, not only because of their similar subject matter (the end of the Earth as we know it), but because of the ways in which they handle characters. I’ve come to realize that many of the characters that are so endearing in these books are endearing because of similar traits; they’re all loners or only trusting of a select few, they all have some uniqueness about them that goes beyond their personality, and they don’t need to be rocket scientists or wonder women to be heroic.

Both King and McCammon include characters who may seem inarticulate—or even flat out dumb—but who are, in fact, men of high moral fiber; the latter, Josh Hutchins, is a pariah and plays the heel in his wrestling career, while the former, Tom Cullen, is illiterate, slow-witted, and just as likely to end up in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as he is in The Stand. Both make mistakes that cause them to become social pariahs—Hutchins accidentally injures another wrestler, while Cullen (on a much smaller level), rebukes the lust-driven Julie Lawry. At that same time, both also have a strong sense of protecting what is good and innocent; Hutchins protects Sue Wanda (Swan) after her mother dies, while Tom protects Nick Andros and Stu Redman. Though they may not be aware of why they do what they do—especially so in the case of Tom Cullen—they protect those who treat them well; ultimately, those who are the backbone of the story.

Both Tom and Josh befriend people who are innocent and, for the most part, helpless. Tom plays the white knight to Nick Andros, who is deaf and dumb (“M-O-O-N, that spells deaf and dumb”), while Josh’s ward, Swan, is a nine year old girl who becomes an orphan when her mother succumbs to radiation poisoning. Nick Andros, perhaps my favorite character in The Stand outside of Tom Cullen (or perhaps Glen Bateman, or… or… or), is a drifter. When we first encounter Nick, he is on his way through Arkansas before he gets accosted by the local welcoming committee. Pardon the turn of phrase, but he doesn’t even hear them coming. When he finally finds a survivor and compatriot, Nick cannot even communicate with the guy because he (Tom) is illiterate. In fact, he has to count on that same sex-crazed chaos-addicted Julie Lawry for any translation whatsoever. Swan, on the other hand, is young and helpless, having transplanted herself her entire life. She has a special gift, a liveliness to her that is infectious, but she is still a child. Admittedly, Nick has left a greater impression on me than Swan, but the idea is still there. Both are unique, and double exceptional in their own respective ways.

Speaking of doubly exceptional, King’s Donald Merwin Elbert (bumpty-bumpty-bump) and McCammon’s Sister Creep are the third pairing of endearing characters. Though they are endearing because of a similar issue, they are endearing for completely different reasons. Elbert, The Trashcan Man, is a pyromaniac—a mentally ill man driven there due to his own mistakes, the constant teasing he received in grade school, and a lifetime of institutionalization/incarceration. Though the Trashcan Man appears to worship the devil (i.e. R.F.), he isn’t entirely malicious. He feels some remorse for what he did that landed him in jail in the first place. Though he often acts out of hate, the way in which it is presented is sad, yet humorous; namely, a schizoid on a rampage. However, in his muddled brain, is he really that much more malicious than McCammon’s bag lady, Sister Creep? Sister Creep, the New York bag lady who has had psychotic episodes, whose alcoholism has led to death and whose depression has led to her forgetting her own name, starts out very much like The Trashcan Man, out to get hers and drawn in by her own paranoia, but her character arc is far more heroic. Ultimately, she sides with Swan and not the Devil, though she never quite wins the reader’s trust until she’s practically all of the way to Mary’s Rest (let’s skip the plot points on this one).

As mentioned, three different sets of characters, three different facets that define these characters. Though I have not delved into why these facets have made them so endearing, I’ve provided a jumping off point. In truth, the reason for this jumping off point comes from the fact that, while these are ‘recent reads,’ I last read them about a year ago, but it also speaks to a fundamental disconnect between the seed and the tree. I’ve shown you part of the seed, and now it’s up to you to read them for yourselves to find the tree.

Connecting this affair to my personal writing, I have many characters that I want to make endearing, both in my first novel, Absconded by Sin, and in my current endeavor, Butano (tentative). However, the want and the activation are two separate things entirely. One of my beta readers identified Brooke (from Absconded by Sin) as an endearing character simply due to the way that she arrives on the scene, quibbling with a gas station attendant. Ironically, this character then floats through several sections of the novel, but that is where my beta reader gets hooked. Perhaps it’s all in the introduction, just like an interview. First impressions can be long lasting, after all.

Think back to some of the classic books or movies that you remember. Where do we first see Charlie Bucket? How about Willy Wonka? How about Nero Wolfe? If these names aren’t doing much for you, perhaps you’ve spent your down time differently, but it’s an interesting conclusion to posit (or maybe just a busy workweek doing the talking): to make a character endearing, you (read: the author) have to go back to the beginning. If you don’t endear the character to the reader immediately, then you’ll struggle to do so all the way through the last act.

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