Discussion Post: Under Represented Characters in Books
There is a particular type of character I feel is seriously under represented in books, considering that the vast majority of people will probably relate to this type of person in one way or another.
I think this is most prevalent in fantasy books; I feel like I notice this more because it’s the genre I read the most of. That’s not to say that these characters are not present in other genres, because that’s definitely not the case either. So you are probably thinking, what character type am I thinking of exactly? Well, the simple answer, is realistic ones!
Let me explain it from the opposite end of the spectrum. Fantasy novels are full of altruistic protagonists. They may come from any background and any kind of advantage or disadvantage, but their prime motivator is doing right by other people. Risking their skin to save others. Sound familiar? If you read fantasy I should definitely hope so. But how many people realistically put others before themselves unconditionally? I wouldn’t say very many.
Don’t get me wrong, we can all pick our moments to do the right thing. Whether it’s baking for the charity cake sale or helping someone when in need, everybody has the capacity to consider other people and act in the other person’s interest from time to time. But when it really matters, when it’s fight or flight, human nature is to be selfish. It is to look after yourself above others, that’s just survival instinct. So why is our basic human nature so under represented in novels? As I say, for the fantasy genre particularly, it is littered – chockablock full of altruistic protagonists, but realistically, that doesn’t represent us at all.
That’s not to say that they all have their perfect protagonists though. There are a few authors in the genre that are not afraid to build their narrative around more complex and realistic characters. To name a few off the top of my head, Jorg Ancrath of Mark Lawrence’s The Broken Empire series, or Ryhalt in Ed Macdonald’s The Raven’s Mark series are standout examples. Why do they stand out? Because I loved them. I loved their flaws and how they still made great characters despite them. Ryhalt uses alcohol as a coping mechanism and runs away from his problems. The ghosts of his past haunt him and he lives with constant guilt. Does that make him a bad person? No!
Whilst I’m not saying that there are far more alcoholics or cowards than altruists in the world, I think it’s fair to say that flawed characters are far more relatable to us as readers. We all make mistakes – we can all be selfish, and there are even times where it’s not a bad thing to be so. Characters with these deep personality flaws are not only more realistic, but I also find them far more interesting. A lot of thought has gone into them; their history and motivations derive from a personal background that we may not know at the time, but the author has invested time to create and use these to build into the character’s development. It makes them more rounded people.
Now perhaps having very altruistic characters can be argued as promoting model behaviour to readers. I can, in a way, agree with that. Yet by having characters with diverse personality traits, good and bad, we can learn from their behaviour. Their inclusion isn’t necessarily promoting the bad stuff. I’d say there is a much similar argument about the media and body image. Yes, being thinner and healthy is recommended, but having images of extremely skinny people around us everywhere isn’t always healthy for people’s body image – it can be harmful too. The same could be said of promoting model behaviour; yes it is good to teach it, but flooding the market with it too much could lead to negative effects if people feel they have to live up to that expectation, and can’t.
As with everything, I think a healthy balance is the best approach, and so I would like to see more characters with less than honest/perfect intentions. Sometimes it’s okay to be selfish. Putting yourself first isn’t a bad thing. Saying no to someone doesn’t make you a bad person. We are not all people-pleasing ‘yes-men’ who’ll stick our necks out on the line for the benefit of others, and that’s okay. It’s perfectly okay to not be perfect.
I’m not sure if this is just something that I think about as I really enjoy reading about characters with less than desirable habits or traits. Is there something you have noticed to? Or do you have a different opinion to me? If so, let me know in the comments!