Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ambiguous Characters

Jos Albert--The Supper--1921 I was shopping at the Costco warehouse—on a Saturday.  I must have lost my mind because there were gobs of people in there.

I quickly grabbed the things I’d come for, then navigated my way toward the cash registers.

Because it was a weekend, the food samples were really out in full force.  Almost every aisle end-cap had someone with a wok or a small grill, cooking samples.

Finally I got a little closer to the registers and was in the cleaning section of the warehouse.  But there was still a lady on an end-cap with some samples.  She had a bottle of cleaner next to her, a cup with the cleaner in it so you could smell how fresh it was, and some free sample packets that you could take home and try.

I’d forgotten garbage bags, so I dodged down that aisle real quick and heard a man come up to the lady behind me.  “Have you got something for me to taste?”

The lady was elderly and she gave a little, tinkling laugh and said, “Well, you wouldn’t want to taste it because it’s soap.  But I do have some samples for you to take home with you and clean with.”

“But everyone else’s table has samples you can eat or drink.  Sure I can’t eat or drink it? How about if I try to?”

Of course, I’m turning around at this point.  He was a sort of nondescript man about my age with a toddler with him. 

This is where I’d have expected him to wink at her or act like he’d been joking and ask some questions about the cleaning power of the detergent or whatever it was.  But he didn’t.

“Oh, I don’t think you’d want to, sir,” the lady said.

“So…it’s not to eat.  A sample that’s not for eating.  We can’t eat this, Jack,” he said to the little boy.
The elderly lady gave a funny laugh, but was clearly trying to figure out if the guy was trying to joke with her, or if he was just odd.  He looked over at me for a moment—I was clearly staring at him.  He smiled, but not a I’m-making-a-joke smile.  I smiled back, but I didn’t understand him or his smile.

“And it’s not for drinking!”  He lifted up the cup she’d put out, acting like he was going to take a sip.

“No sir,” she said, with some emphasis on the ‘no.’ She looked uncomfortable.

He kept going back and forth with it.  Was it a joke that was taken to a tedious length?  Was the man just a little off?  I wasn’t going to stick around and try to figure out more clues, though—especially since he was already clued in to the fact that I was watching him.

I’ve read a few books in the last couple of years that had characters that were hard to read. 

Were they good guys or bad guys?  Friends or enemies of the main character?

Sometimes an author has an unlikeable character do something good, or vice versa.  And as a reader, I was left wondering, “Was this good thing done by this bad character done 0nly because it was self-serving in some way?”

And occasionally, I’ve had a hard time finding clues to a character’s intent in the dialogue.  Sarcasm can be especially hard to figure out (unless a writer is using tags that leave no doubt that he’s wanting a sentence to be taken that way –‘he said sarcastically.’  Which isn’t considered great writing.)

I like ambiguous characters, I think, when I’m getting the feeling that I’m reading a complex character.  I don’t like ambiguity when I feel like the writer just doesn’t have a handle on the character and the character isn’t acting consistently. 

But if the ambiguity goes on for a long time, I think it needs to be really well written.  Rowling’s Severus Snape comes to mind—she did a great job showing different sides to him.  He wasn’t all good or all bad—and really, are most of us?

But if there were a character like my guy in the Costco?  I think I’d want a little more explanation at some point as to where he’s coming from—some background on why he might be behaving erratically.  Some insight on whether he’s got a weird sense of humor…or is weird, himself.

Are your characters easy to read?  If you give them some layers of complexity, is their motivation clear?  Or do you leave readers wondering for a while…and how long?