Nov 06 2010

Discussion: Can characters be inherently uninteresting?

Published by at 7:41 am under Character Development

I read this on a discussion board today: “There are no bad or uninteresting characters, only characters that are written badly or uninterestingly.” What do you think?

24 responses so far

24 Responses to “Discussion: Can characters be inherently uninteresting?”

  1. Mr. Crowleyon 06 Nov 2010 at 8:04 am

    I think that if written right any character can be interesting. Unless a character is written to be a boring stick in the mud.

  2. Steton 06 Nov 2010 at 8:19 am

    That’s the equivalent of saying, ‘there are no bad or uninteresting people, only people who live in a bad or uninteresting way.’

    The character _is_ the writing. Characters are composed of writing. Is the question, ‘can you think of an uninteresting character who cannot be redeemed by writing?’

    Sure. The first person story of a guy who died in 1274, was buried and forgotten, and remains buried and forgotten, in a novel set in 2010.

    321 pages of this:

  3. B. Macon 06 Nov 2010 at 8:30 am

    Obviously, execution counts for a hell of a lot. If a hundred authors each wrote an adult novel starring a 4 year old superhero, at least one author would figure out a way to make it work (even though the vast majority of the books would probably be cloying/cute and otherwise unappealing to the target audience). So the concept is difficult but probably not unworkable.

    However, I think some concepts ARE unworkable.

    For example, take the Sentry. He’s a godlike character* in the Marvel universe, which has very few godlike characters. Whenever he shows up, the end result is almost always that he does nothing, because his nigh-unchallengeable powers would break the story if he did get involved. He can’t do anything but nothing, so he’s guaranteed to be a waste of space.

    I don’t think that any writer could make the Sentry’s stories better without making other Marvel characters’ stories worse. For example, I think adding more godlike characters as potential challenges would be problematic because it’d compromise an important Marvel asset, that its characters are more like superpowered humans than gods.

    So I think the Sentry’s concepts make him an inherently poor character for pretty much all of the stories he has been slotted into.

    I could sort of see a godlike superhero working in a short story, particularly an introspective drama, but slotting him into popcorn action like World War Hulk is lunacy. If an author pitched a mainly action story to me about an omnipotent hero, I’d glance at the synopsis but I’d be strongly inclined to pass because I don’t think the character could be challenged in an interesting way.

    What do you think?

    *I’m only focusing on his omnipotence here but his concept has so many problems it’d be hard to list all of them. If you’re interested in more details, I’d recommend seeing this thread and this hilarious but highly profane take.

  4. Sean Higginson 06 Nov 2010 at 8:35 am

    I disagree. There are definitely bad characters out there. But a bad character can still have an interesting story. I believe that there are no stories that are uninteresting given the correct perspective.

  5. Sean Higginson 06 Nov 2010 at 8:50 am

    And on your note about Sentry, I believe the character just hasn’t been used in the right way. Have him join in a fight, but have his focus be to assist, while trying to uphold the Superhero Docturn of no killing. Imagine an all powerful character going toe to toe with someone like the Shocker when his biggest concern is not killing the bad guy. And then that leaves the question of what happens when the innevitable accidental death does happen? Would he refuse to use his powers any further or maybe turn villainous? Lots of options, if played right.

  6. B. Macon 06 Nov 2010 at 8:57 am

    “The first person story of a guy who died in 1274, was buried and forgotten, and remains buried and forgotten, in a novel set in 2010.” At the risk of being contrarian, I think 1+ out of 100 good authors could make it work by making him a ghost aware of what’s going on above him and able to narrate what happened in his life. (He’d also probably need to draw some connection between then and now, otherwise the setup would be rather clunky and awkward–for example, maybe he’s cynical because he died in a war for religious values and he sees pretty much everybody utterly failing his medieval standards).

  7. Dillanon 06 Nov 2010 at 1:35 pm

    This is interesting. Because sure there are several bad characters out there, but what is the remedy for that. If a character like the sentry, for example was taken on by very talented writters, is it possible for him to work in a story at all? The character himself is awful but that’s how he was written. I’m sure he wasn’t intended to be horrible, but that was the end result. But my main question has to be, is it simply that the character sucks, or just the writters direction with him? Personally I hate how the writters have done his mental illness it just doesn’t seem genuine. Another question is if a talented wriiter can challenge and make a very limited character interesting (I mean limited like one general power) than can’t said writter make a character who is powerful say like superman interesting? I’m aware the challanging the character plays a big part, but their are several ways to effectively challange a character like superman and maybe some of the challanges might not be straight up fights.

  8. Lighting Manon 06 Nov 2010 at 2:37 pm

    I definitely agree with the quote, it is simply a matter of good writing or bad when it comes to the quality of characters, but there can certainly be a lot of handicaps for good writing to have to overcome, essentially gimping it.

    I think a good example of bad characters becoming entertaining under good writing is within a lot of parodies and comedic works, I mean, nobody would call the protagonists of Twilight good characters, even “characters” is a bit of a stretch, but I find them pretty amusing when parodied, the restrained, empty personalities can become quite enjoyable when pushed to extremes, the minor, interchangeable traits are defined and made to dominate the characters and their interactions. The characters themselves aren’t changed, just made more pronounced and that makes them enjoyable.

    I think that a few issues during “Siege” with The Sentry came close to making him an interesting character, but the editorially mandated stupidity definitely got in the way. I really liked the issue in which The Sentry’s wife was murdered and The Sentry was made to feel responsible, it was well written, his Superman-ness wasn’t the focus of it and it showed a side of Bullseye and Osborn that doesn’t really get shown all that much, but by the end of the next issue, he was going all tentacle-y, and boring.

  9. Steton 06 Nov 2010 at 4:47 pm

    I almost wrote ‘in a novel of realism,’ you contrarian! My point is that if I think of a character about which nothing can be written–the realistic first person portrayal of a picosecond in the existence of a non-self-aware ballpoint pen–then I can guarantee something uninteresting.

    But otherwise, no.

    My objection is that the question presumes that ‘character’ means something other than ‘how that character is written.’ It doesn’t. It’s a meaningless question. It’s like saying, ‘can you add 2 = 2 without using math?’

    Unless the idea is there are no character _concepts_ (unless we get absurd) that good writing cannot make interesting, which seems obviously true.

  10. ekimmakon 06 Nov 2010 at 5:07 pm

    I actually sat down once, and asked myself “What don’t I like about Twilight?”
    “The main characters.”
    “What could be done to fix that?”

    My answer was make Bella a mystery fanatic, make Edward talk like he actually is centuries old, and make their relationship realistic.

    It would have probably ended up just as some bad fan fiction, but it was nice to think about.

  11. B. Macon 06 Nov 2010 at 5:45 pm

    I’m not very familiar with Twilight, but from what I understand, it seems like everything ridiculous in it is caused by how the main characters act and think. (For example, Bella’s super-clinginess and notable-but-never-remarked-upon tendency to throw out guys as soon as she finds someone hotter).

    In contrast, I feel that Heroes got ridiculous more because of ridiculous plot contrivances than because the characters themselves acted ridiculously*. For example, a hitchhiking Sylar just happened to catch a ride with two mutants that just happen to be looking for the same doctor he is.

    *Although there was definitely some of that. The less we say about Denko or Dr. “Hey, let’s test this mutagen on myself!” Suresh, the better.

  12. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 06 Nov 2010 at 6:46 pm

    “Bella’s super-clinginess and notable-but-never-remarked-upon tendency to throw out guys as soon as she finds someone hotter”

    Bleh, I haven’t read the book, but I’m guessing that costuming and such would be based on the descriptions in the book, and I do not find either Edward or Jacob attractive. The makeup they put on Pattinson is terrible and completely stopped any of his real-life attractiveness coming through. The whole first movie (yes, I saw it, I was dragged along, but after watching we were all like “…never again”) I was staring at Lautner’s teeth. I don’t know why, they seemed kinda weird to me. Both of the actors are/seem more attractive offscreen, from my point of view. Kristen Stewart is very pretty though, she seems to be the only actor whose makeup didn’t screw up her natural looks.

    Haha, so I would rephrase that quote as “Bella is a moron with no taste in men, and must have a subconscious deathwish because she’s dating a vampire and attracted to a werewolf.”

    Anyway, I somewhat agree with the topic. Most uninteresting characters are written poorly, and have a lot of unexploited potential. I read one story a long time ago where the main character was of above average intelligence, and a fight took place in an old blacksmith’s. He didn’t think to grab one of the pokers and whack his attacker upside the head. Even an idiot would think of that.

    But, being one of the lazy people of my generation, I will continue to call them “boring characters” because it’s easier than saying “Hey, that dude was written quite poorly”. XD

  13. B. Macon 06 Nov 2010 at 7:56 pm

    Sadly, I think a lot of the women that saw the movies thought he was very attractive. More importantly, Bella is utterly enthralled by his looks. (Which was itself ridiculous. If scrawny albinos got women, I would be swamped).

    “Bella is a moron with no taste in men, and must have a subconscious deathwish because she’s dating a vampire and attracted to a werewolf.” I could sympathize with a character falling in love even though the relationship entails some danger (excitement!). It’s just that her relationships are really, really shallow. For example, how readily she tosses Jacob aside after Edward comes back. (He gets a consolation prize, though, becoming her son-in-law*). Also, Edward is repeatedly nasty to her, bordering on abusive, and yet she absolutely shuts down all of the guys in the story that are actually nice to her.

    I’d have less of a problem with all of this if the novel presented this as a troubled relationship, but I don’t think that there’s any indication that the author intended it to come off that way.

    *I SWEAR I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP.

  14. Lighting Manon 06 Nov 2010 at 8:59 pm

    I was just thinking about that the other day, if werewolves auto-magically sense their soul mates, why did he even pursue her? If he knew that he’d eventually put the Michael Jackson pat on the kid, wasn’t it just to serve the plot that he even bothered to go after her and the daughter-love was just a random storyline end offered by an author that couldn’t bother to craft characters, and then grew too attached to them? However, even if you consider that she had the imprinting thing worked out from day one, then it kind of offers the disturbing (in a series full of disturbing things) perspective that he was only interested in her for the weird werewolf-people sex they could have had for a few weekends.

    Which effectively means that it is four books about a teenager girl choosing between a weird, abusive pedophile vampire and a lecherous, weird pedophile werewolf, that was effectively attempting to make sure he never found true happiness the whole time he was opposing the relationship to the stalker wife-beat-y vampire, even though he didn’t know it as such.

  15. B. Macon 06 Nov 2010 at 9:09 pm

    Maybe Bella KNEW that Jacob was a budding pedophile and strung him along so that he wouldn’t lust after kids that didn’t have superpowered vampires protecting them.

    The only problem with this theory is that it flies in the face of everything else we know about Bella (shallow, useless).

  16. Wingson 06 Nov 2010 at 9:26 pm

    I actually have a rough outline for a Twilight rewrite which I’m irrationally proud of…Is it still fanfic if the characters, plot, and ideas are completely 180’d from the original source material? I must investigate further, after NaNo is over…

    – Wings

  17. B. Macon 06 Nov 2010 at 10:22 pm

    “Is it still fanfic if the characters, plot, and ideas are completely 180′d from the original source material?” I think a lot of excellent and/or classic original works have been written by taking pieces from previous stories and turning them around. For example, Great Gatsby is a Horatio Alger work gone horribly, horribly wrong. In comic books, I think there are a lot of parallels between Spiderman (a somewhat romanticized geek) and Kickass (a geek that definitely isn’t).

  18. Dillanon 07 Nov 2010 at 3:27 am

    Hey what ever happened to the badass monterous vampire’s that only used humans as playthings ( sexual objects and food etc). It seems now adays vampires have lost their gothic and evil roots and adapted this god awful and I mean AWFUL sparkle crap. What the hell is this belle and edward crap or even Bill and sookie from true blood. Vampires should return to the horrifying creatures of the night they once were and like Catholics to anything by Dan brown,burn all this sparkly vampire novels and film and whatever else in a grand(and very public) book burning.

  19. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 07 Nov 2010 at 4:07 am

    “I could sympathize with a character falling in love even though the relationship entails some danger (excitement!)”

    Yeah, but when it’s the kind of danger where someone might get killed (or at least bashed) by the other person, it gets stupid. I understand how it could be exciting if there is danger to the couple, like being forcibly separated, which I guess could be seen as romantic, like Romeo and Juliet. (Only, hopefully, no one dies in the end)

    I have only seen the first Twilight movie, but I fully intend to see the fourth. I want to see how they do the birth scene, where Edward rips Bella’s tummy open to pull the baby out. I also want to go in Hogwarts robes and carry a wand, and yell spells at the screen hoping that the projector will break or the screen will tear.

  20. Steton 07 Nov 2010 at 10:07 am

    “If scrawny albinos got women, I would be swamped.”

    Made me laugh!

  21. B. Macon 07 Nov 2010 at 10:39 am

    Now I just need to figure out a way to make myself sparkle in the sunlight. Right now it’s more like a glare.

  22. Ragged Boyon 08 Nov 2010 at 7:49 am

    I suppose on a sort of similar note, how would you go about writing a more introverted protaganist who has extroverted campanions without making him come off as boring in comparison?

    I suspect the most impoartant thing to do would be to make sure that he has his own defining traits. Although, they may not be as obtrusive as other characters’ traits they should still have their own dramatic potential. Any insight would be appreciated.

  23. Wingson 08 Nov 2010 at 3:16 pm

    Really, the only things remaining the same in Crepuscular* are the character names and a few plot details. I could change that and get a Suspiciously Similar work…But better, I hope.

    – Wings

    *crepuscular – pertaining to or resembling twilight

  24. B. Macon 30 Jan 2011 at 9:18 am

    “How would you go about writing a more introverted protagonist who has extroverted companions without making him come off as boring in comparison?” Maybe something is going on that forces the character to interact (awkwardly) with other characters. So he’s still introverted in that he doesn’t want to interact as much with other people (and probably isn’t very good at it), but he has to.


    For example, maybe he’s a very introverted engineer that got promoted to project manager. Or maybe he’s a Sherlock Holmes type that knows something that’s highly important to other characters and they’re trying to pick his brains. Or maybe he gets thrust into supernatural or epic intrigue or adventure by randomly getting superpowers even though he’s a rather poor fit for a superhero.

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