What makes characters interesting to others? Why are we interested in their actions, lives, or loves? Take the beloved hero Pierre Bezukhov from the many pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Why are we interested in this man and willing to follow him through the drawing rooms, the vast battlefields, and the dark bedrooms of Russia in the early nineteenth century?
Pierre is presented to us from the start as intriguing. He is in a precarious and entirely uncertain position: we wonder if he, the illegitimate son of an extremely wealthy prince who is dying, will inherit the grand fortune. Pierre is large and overweight and cannot, literally, see very well. He is a dreamer (the only one whose dreams and diaries are given in the book). He is absentminded, and bumbles and stumbles through his life, forgetting his hat, his glasses slipping down his nose. He is an innocent who does not seem able to understand much of what is happening around him.
All these characteristics endear him to us, make us laugh at him, fear for him, and above all identify with him. He is like all of us in so many ways. Have we not forgotten our hats or let our glasses slip down our noses? Are we not awkward in social situations? Are we not fatter or thinner than we would like to be? Are there not so many things in life that we cannot understand? We feel for him and smile tenderly at his blundering efforts to find his way through the battlefield of life in his large white hat.
At the same time he is not entirely a victim or a passive character. He is obviously highly intelligent, curious, and always searching for the meaning of life. At one point he wants to become a Mason and we have a hilarious scene of him, during his initiation, blundering around in the dark. He has high aspirations. He is capable of true empathy with the weak: he comes to the heroine’s, Natasha’s, rescue when she is shunned by all. He is capable of passion—his love for Natasha, of course—and from time to time of uncontrollable but satisfying anger against the villains of the book, his own wife, Helena, for example. He is impulsive, yet able to make plans, to plot. He is moved to action: he once plans to kill Napoleon, who has invaded Russia! He is also very lucky, somehow shooting his adversary in a duel though he does not know how to shoot.
All of this gives many clues about how to present characters with sufficient complexity to evoke sympathy, admiration, and credence, and how to make someone loved on the page. Characters surely need to display our many small failings and faults, which make them human and believable, but at the same time they need to be capable of defending themselves; they must have certain assets that are admirable, or at least aspire to higher things or be capable of great cunning and machination. Success of any kind (Pierre of course becomes immensely rich, fawned upon suddenly by those who have spurned him) is always interesting—even the success of someone we may not wholly admire. We think of the villains or anti-heroes of literature and film: Richard III; Maupassant’s Bel Ami, and recently even Dick Cheney in the film Vice: someone who badly wants something, someone who is curious, who is searching for the answers to life. But a character capable of listening to others, feeling for them in their distress, a character capable of passionate warmth—that’s someone readers will love.
Sheila Kohler is the author of ten novels, three volumes of short fiction, and many essays. Her most recent book is the memoir Once We Were Sisters (Penguin, 2017). Her stories have appeared three times in The Best American Short Stories and twice in The O. Henry Prize Stories. Her novel Cracks was made into a film with directors Jordan and Ridley Scott, with Eva Green playing Miss G. She blogs at Psychology Today under “Dreaming for Freud.” A version of her essay “In a Woman’s Kingdom” (AGNI 82) will appear in her memoir, I Will Take it to the Grave, just sold to Penguin. (updated 1/2019)