This post was first published in our CEO, Deborah's, blog.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I was watching the anime Bleach. This post is not about the show; it's just that it made me think about the idea of treating characters with dignity—or not treating them with dignity. Anime makes this concept easy to see (if your character makes a crazy silly cartoon face because they’re upset, you’re not treating them with dignity), but the concept holds true throughout all stories.
I’ll try to break it down a bit.
Treating a character with dignity means never making fun of him or inviting your reader to laugh at him.
Now, the interesting thing about this is that you aren’t changing what the characters are doing or feeling, only how you are presenting their actions and thoughts. It’s irrelevant whether your character is dignified or not. It’s entirely possible to treat an undignified character with dignity or vice versa. Indeed, in real life, treating yourself with dignity generally doesn’t mean being rigid and proper all the time—it means being okay with looking stupid.
Think about acting. If an actor is embarrassed and acting like he thinks he looks ridiculous, then he will look ridiculous. If he instead totally gets into his role, he’ll look awesome—even if his acting isn’t all that great. In real life, if you get up to give a speech and rub your hands awkwardly and say, “Ah, this is awkward; I haven’t prepared,” you’ll look pathetic. If you get up and give the crowd a big cheesy grin and announce that you haven’t prepared, you’ll look great.
In stories, a villain who tries to make the beautiful princess marry him can certainly look ridiculous, pathetic, and laughable—or he can look tragic, pitiable, and romantic (a la Phantom of the Opera). Likewise, if the villain loses his temper and starts screaming threats, the author can make him look silly or she can make him look terrifying, but—and note this—she cannot do both simultaneously.
Denying a villain dignity will rob him of his power to scare the reader.
Which may be what you want. Indeed, this is a very powerful tool in real life: if you can make your opponent look ridiculous, then 99% of the time, you have won the psychological battle—and the rest follows quickly.
For some stories, a villain treated without dignity for laughs is great fun, but I’ve also seen it done in a way that totally undermined the story simply because the author didn't understand. I once edited a book in which the protagonist was strong and perfect and the villain was weak and cowardly. I tried to explain to the author that this made me want to root for the villain, because the villain was the underdog and I couldn't identify with the protagonist . . . and the author responded by making the villain even more weak and cowardly and thus even more of an underdog. By treating his villain without dignity and asking the reader to laugh at how weak he was (and doing the opposite with his hero), what the author accomplished was that he evoked sympathy for the villain and got the reader to side with the villain.
Sigh. But on the plus side, this leads us to my next point:
Treating a character with dignity creates a barrier between character and reader; treating a character without dignity brings character and reader closer together.
Have you ever tried to be close buddies with someone who’s distant and aloof? Do you even want to be friends with such people? Aloofness creates a do-not-mess-with-me barrier. (This may or may not be intentional; the trick, in books and real life, is to recognize what you’re doing and use it appropriately.) I’ve used proper politeness in real life as a means of defense—and of forcing a dangerous party to act properly toward me. It doesn’t always work, but I believe it has several times kept me safe. Now, in a story, it's whether you treat the character with dignity (not whether the character is dignified) that creates the barrier. So ask yourself: Do I want to create a barrier?
It depends on your aim. I’d say that 99.99% of the time, you do not want to create a barrier around your protagonist, because you want your reader to identify with them. But beyond that, it depends on what you’re aiming for with each character.
Which characters should you treat with dignity? It’s up to you. Just make sure you’re making the choice purposefully and that you know the consequences of it.