What is it about fictional characters that we love so much? Sometimes I think it’s their inhumanity, their simplicity, their ideas about wants, but in reality, does that really reflect people? Does that really reflect why people do what they do? Wants?
Wants. In thinking about story, we often think, in its most simple sense, that it can be summed up as a character wanting something and there is something in his or her way (conflict). It’s all about how far they’re willing to go to get that want. Like in the picture, Rocky wants Adrian, and if he gets her, he’ll be happy … or so we think.
Does that really reflect reality? Do people go around just pursuing wants? I feel like I’m the sort of person that tries to do that, that is driven by sheer want, but in reality, I’m driven by fear and anxiety and my past much more than that. Sometimes I think to myself (though never in these terms), “If I can just catch a break, if I can just get X, I’ll be happy.” That’s the simple paradigm, right? That getting what you want is the answer?
Reality of wants. Fact is, wants are complicated and conflicting. Characters in stories may very simply want to get the Holy Grail or the girl or the boy or money, etc., but in real life, people also want to feel safe, to feel comfortable, to not replicate past hurts, etc. And these things get in the way of very simple wants. Good characters are conflicted in this sense. Good characters are a complicated amalgamation of their past, of their childhoods, of past loves, of an overactive brain, of mental illness, and, no matter how clearly the plot says that a character should want X, it’s never as simple as that.
TED Talks. I have a bad habit of watching TED Talks. I love them. I’m addicted to them, one might say, and there’s an interesting one on the idea of synthesized happiness. The basic idea is that people do create their own happiness independent of their situation: meaning, Rocky is not going to be happy just cause he got Adrian. People invent happiness or sadness if they want to. Shakespeare once said in Hamlet (and this is quoted in the video),
“for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
And this seems to be true. Here’s the video:
Happiness and Intelligence. Some of the saddest people I’ve ever known have been the most intelligent, and some of the happiest people I’ve known are what we supposed academics might call “simple.” Hemingway said of it,
“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”
Of course, that’s an unfair characterization, but intelligence seems often linked with depression, anxiety, rumination, etc. (I’m talking to you, artist-types!)
True happiness? Perhaps the happiest person I’ve ever known in my life was a guy named Kenny I grew up with. He was an athlete in high school, long and lanky, somewhat handsome, but when he finished high school, he was diagnosed (if my memory serves me right) with deterioration of the brain stem. He soon could not walk without falling, and he jerked and twitched constantly. He was not an educated man, but his mind still seemed somewhat clear. He was simply losing the ability to control his body.
Soon enough, he could not walk, and in his early thirties, Kenny passed away. Still, in the time I knew him, he was the happiest man I think I ever knew. I never understood it. He had every reason to be unhappy, but when I’d scowl as I’d walk past him, he’d extend a shaky hand and smile at me like he just had the best day of his life. I know it’s perhaps clichè, but it has always been hard for me to understand how people like him could be so happy.
Hurt and happiness. I’m a man who has known a decent amount of hurt in his life, but the reality is, we all have experienced abuse and heartbreak and violence and neglect, etc. It can come to define who we are, and while it’s important to recognize those things, if we ruminate on that too much, if we believe that we are doomed to repeat the cycle of hurt, well … we will. We are just repeating the hurt again and again in our overactive minds.
Characters sometimes show this, but often not. People are complicated things, and they are never as simple as want or not want. Characters need internal conflicts, that divide between want and fear and hurt. And that’s what makes an interesting character, I think. The ability to try to change. Einstein once said,
“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
When we root for a character to succeed, it’s easy to think of the simple want (Rocky to get Adrian in the end), but in reality, what we want is for a character to find happiness one way or the other. People suck at happiness. I know I do, but, like the characters I’m trying to write, I’m working on my ability to change.
You and your characters will not often get what you want … but that has little, or perhaps nothing, to do with happiness. Just something to think about.