Sunday, March 14, 2010

“Believable character”

My best male students have been pestering me to go see Martin Scorsese’s new film Shutter Island, a cop thriller with Leonard DiCaprio playing the lead role of U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels. Conveniently enough, the latest magazines to arrive at the house carried reviews of the film.

“This is a movie that requires audiences to care, and care deeply, about what’s happening in poor beleaguered Teddy Daniels’s brain,” Ross Douthat writes in National Review. “His psychological problems are the film, in a way—but Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t the man to make you believe in them, or him.”

In the Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz asserts the reverse. The Dennis Lehane novel upon which the film is based is so excessively long, he says, that “one’s ability to suspend disbelief is taken to the breaking point and beyond.” The movie version would be an utter flop “were it not for DiCaprio’s extraordinary performance, which (unlike the plot) only seems to get better the more you think about it.”

The coincidence of two critics reaching diametrically opposed conclusions in very nearly the same terms set me to thinking. Bill Vallicella, as I recalled, had also used the same terms. “A good novelist,” he proposed, “has the ability to set before the reader in concrete and memorable terms a believable character. . . .” Believability, on this showing, seems inseparable from whatever a good novelist is good at.

At all events, critics say this kind of thing all the time (“the character comes to life,” “the character just never seems real”), but only now do I realize that I have no idea what they mean. Podhoretz’s opinion is the most respectable, because it is attached to something outside his opinion: most people would agree that a 400-page thriller, written in “indifferent prose,” would be a strain on more than disbelief. But the conventional form of the critical plaudits and disapproval seems little more than the interjection of a mood.


zmkc said...

Creating a believable character must involve at the very least writing dialogue that does not clunk and ensuring consistency in the character's attitudes and behaviour. It seems to me that more and more books are told in the first person these days. Could this be because the characterisation is easier in such stories - you only need to have one main character who is really authentic; all the others are viewed through the filter of that character's mind. Also writing in the first person may give the writer a greater belief in a character, which may (possibly?) lead to the character being more believable. The writer at least completely identifies with the character, which, like him/her, is 'I'.

D. G. Myers said...

Well, maybe. The trouble is that most of these terms (“dialogue that does not clunk,” “one main character who is really authentic”) raise more questions than they answer. What does it mean for dialogue to “clunk,” and how can a reader know? What is “authenticity” of character, and (again) how can a reader know?

The only reliable principle that you advance here is “ensuring consistency in the character’s attitudes and behaviour,” but are consistency and believability identical? Is one in the service of the other? What exactly is the relationship between them?

Anonymous said...

Although this is only tangentially related to your larger point about criticism, one thing I noted about Shutter Island is its relationship to The Turn of the Screw in that both the movie and the novel invite us to ask an essential question regarding the sanity of their characters: is Teddy Daniels crazy or part of a conspiracy? Is the Governess crazy or does she ghosts?

In both cases, I think the question of whether the particular character is crazy is less interesting than the nature of sanity itself, how we judge what our senses tell us (which is a variation on much older problems of skepticism), and how we evaluate signs, both literarily and otherwise.

Consequently, I don't think we "to care, and care deeply, about what’s happening in poor beleaguered Teddy Daniels’s brain" to still find the movie interesting, although this might be an example over over-intellectualizing on my part.

In addition, to my mind one fascinating part of the movie is the anxiety it shows about what sanity is; I would tend to link it to movies like Total Recall or The Matrix, or to some of Philip K. Dick's work: the question of what is real (and hence authentic, and much else) is one that gets asked over and over, with the implication that much of what is around us might not be. The most perceptive essay I've seen on The Matrix comes from Adam Gopnik in The Unreal Thing: What’s wrong with the Matrix? Not surprisingly, he goes back to Dick as well, but he misses The Turn of the Screw. I feel like there's a larger, more developed essay in here somewhere, but I can't figure out how to attack it.

One other point: you say that "most people would agree that a 400-page thriller, written in “indifferent prose,” would be a strain on more than disbelief." I suspect otherwise: I think most critics would agree, but most people wouldn't; for evidence, see The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter or most of the NY Times Bestseller list from week to week. Alternately, most people have sufficiently varied opinions on what "indifferent prose" means that "indifferent prose" becomes itself a statement like the "the character just never seems real".

Kevin said...

I'm often reminded, when I hear adjectives and superlatives used in conversations about books, of the friendly, giddy banter at a wine bar, as the pinot or zin or syrah are sampled savoringly: "A lovely earthy flavor with a hint of chocolate or is that almond I taste, yes, verily like an almond or maybe even a cashew," etc. Around powerful experiences language congeals. So too with "authentic" characters in "life-like" novels. Some descriptions are better because they're more firmly rooted in a wider experience. Regards, Kevin

Anonymous said...

Podhoretz doesn't even begin to engage with the text and perhaps that is why he thinks the plot is ridiculous.

Ebert does a much better job at engaging the text of the film and reaches the questions Lehane wants you to ask,

"There is a human tendency to note carefully what goes before, and draw logical conclusions. But -- what if you can't nail down exactly what went before? What if there were things about Cawley and his peculiar staff that were hidden? What if the movie lacks a reliable narrator? What if its point of view isn't omniscient but fragmented? Where can it all lead? What does it mean? We ask, and Teddy asks, too."u

zmkc said...

Is there any way to formulate why some people are immensely attractive? I don't think so - and I think your question about what makes characters believable is a similar kind of inquiry. Some things are indefinable - at least in the abstract. When a particular piece of dialogue clunks, you can do close textual analysis to find out why, but you can't define what makes believable or clunking dialogue generally. I still think the popularity of first person is quite interesting.

D. G. Myers said...


An excellent analogy, but it only goes to buttress my point. The judgments about believable characters and clunky dialogue are thoroughly subjective. The judgments may have little or nothing to do, then, with the characters and dialogue. They may be expressions of prejudice (or what are now, I believe, known as “preexisting conditions”).

They may be owing to indigestion. The character may remind a certain reader of a well-regarded old friend or an ancient despised enemy. He may be distracted by money worries when reading the dialogue, and think to himself, “How clunky!”

But I do agree with you about the shortcut provided by first-person narration.

Anonymous said...

The larger question is that of suspension of disbelief. Why do we suspend disbelief? What makes us credulous of certain things? I think it has a great deal to do with what we believe a priori, which is to a great extent culturally determined.

R/T said...

I would not think "clunky dialogue" serves always as a way of critiquing characterization; after all, you and I know many people who really speak that way, which means "clunky dialogue" might be superb realism.

Here is another way of thinking about believable characterization: only when it conforms to the plot and the theme (i.e., contributing to the unified whole) is characterization successful (believable). Still, you might argue that this remains subjective and an insufficient test.

D. G. Myers said...


I am inclined to agree with you. That is more or less how Podhoretz was using the term, I believe. And the one time I have ever used it on this Commonplace Blog, in speculating that, “secretly, few readers [of Beloved believe in [the ghost’s] reality,” I was expressly criticizing the inadequacy of Morrison’s fictional device.