Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone. It’s Tuesday 8pm and the latest episode of Holby City is about to start on BBC1. (What’s that face for? Too lowbrow for you? Try it; you might like it. And it won a BAFTA two years ago.) Bear with me anyway because I’m using my favourite programme to talk about heroes in fiction.
Now where were we?
Ah yes, the thrill of the medical drama, watching characters under pressure in life and death situations.
– She’s in VF. Get the defibrillator. Clear!
– She’s not responding.
– Get her into theatre NOW!
I’ve no idea what it means to be in VF, or tachycardic, asystolic, etc. – that’s not important. What really matters is that this is an emergency situation and Consultant Michael Spence is ready to save the day.
I’ve always admired the way that TV scriptwriters get us to accept new characters in continuing drama. Take the aforementioned Mr Spence. I admit I didn’t like him at first – too shouty, his shirts were too tight, not to mention being a two-timing scumbag. But three months down the line and you start to reappraise the situation. Perhaps you were a bit harsh – no-one’s perfect, after all – and the shirts… are starting to look okay, actually. (Give yourself a few more episodes and you’ll be googling to find out whether your star signs are compatible and what he eats for breakfast.) Such is the magic of the scriptwriter that I’m left wondering, How the hell did you win me over!
It’s all about the competence
It’s simple really. According to James N. Frey in ‘How to Write Damn Good Fiction’ readers are intrigued by and attracted to characters that are good at what they do. Now, competence isn’t just about performing life-saving operations, or rescuing children from cliff-tops, or fighting off the enemy with stunning martial arts moves (thrilling though these things are). Character competence can be demonstrated in ordinary domains, at work or at play, through hobbies and interests. What matters, says Frey, is that if we are to like and care for a character we need to see them doing something well, even if their personal lives are disastrous.
So, who are your favourite fictional heroes? What are they good at?