Reading about flat characters in E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, I have just been reminded of one of the things that routinely frustrates me in David Weber’s work. Weber likes trying to make characters who should essentially be flat, more or less caricatures intended to draw up conflict or drama or comedy (or maybe they should be comic but he refuses to use them in that way, making them painfully comic instead… more on that later). But instead of accepting that these characters should be flat, he tries to flesh them out. He tries to make them round, and make me care about them. Nine times out of ten, he fails.
I am glad that Weber apparently wants to make me care about people on all sides of the various conflicts that he loves to write about. I think it’s worth remembering that the people on different sides of a conflict are in fact people. But stories aren’t real life, and if you want to tell a story in which I come to care about the people on the other side of a conflict, you’ve got to do it differently. I’m specifically thinking about the Safehold books, because I just read Midst Toil and Tribulation, but this shows up in so many Weber books. So many.
A quick moment of backtracking: flat characters, as they’ve come to be called, are characters who exist largely as caricatures or types. They’re there to flesh out a scene, but they aren’t necessarily meant to stand up to deeper examination. Because it usually takes time and focus to give a reader a better sense of who any given character is, to make a character “round,” storytellers use little bundles of easily stereotyped behaviors or descriptions (the jolly one, the worried parent, the tyrant, the kind teacher, the hard ass, what have you) to establish a character without *actually* spending much time on them. Movies do this all the time. The flattest characters might be summed up in a single sentence: one of Forster’s examples is something like “I will always stand by my spouse.” That’s it, there’s nothing more to it. Archetypal characters are flat in a deep sense (“I always want more”), but might show more variation on the surface because their drives apply more broadly.
Some people are upset when they come across flat characters in stories, perhaps because they want all characters to be perfectly unique and amazingly human. Personally, I like to have a mix. I don’t want to spend that much time on most of the characters in a story, because they’re not the people that I care about. Sometimes I may come to care about them later, or I may care about them because I really like a given caricature or archetype, but an author’s use of flat characters often signals to us as readers where we should focus our sympathies and attention.
Maybe an author will use flat characters carefully, to provide the illusion of depth without using up the time or focus of a piece. Maybe they’ll just use them as throwaways. Either way flat characters have their place in fiction.
So. Back to David Weber and flat characters.
His usage of flat characters (or failure to use flat characters) aggravates me. There are times when Weber gives enough time and space to tell me about characters with whom he wants me to empathize that he succeeds. But more often I feel like he introduces uninteresting characters that I know are going to be dead before the next half of the book is finished. And then he spends a chapter or two telling me about their past in a way that entirely fails to grab me, because I know that he’s describing asshats who are about to die. Honestly, sometimes I feel the same way about the characters he introduces on the side that I’m supposed to be sympathetic to. Why bother? If you’re going to use a character that you know is essentially a flat character, someone who will only show up for a few scenes and who so closely fits a type that we as consumers of fiction are already familiar with, why spend half a chapter (or a whole chapter) telling me about their tragic backstory that’s left them obsessed with violence and revenge? It’s like Weber wants the best of both worlds, both complex round characters and simple flat characters, but instead takes the worst; we get pages of description of people who never manage to escape their caricature, who never act in any interesting fashion outside of how I’d expected them to act after the first sentence I read about them. I can’t count how many times I’ve read one of Weber’s descriptions of a violent, pathological fanatic set on murdering the people Weber has spent the rest of the book telling me I’m supposed to care about.
There are other, better ways to use my time, focus, and energy. There are other, better ways for him to use his time, focus, and energy… unless he really loves writing that stuff, I guess, in which case he should knock himself out and I’ll keep occasionally reading his books and reliably groaning when this problem comes up again and again.
Beyond the issue of flat characters, part of this problem comes back to the problem of overusing pathos. Orson Scott Card, for whatever other disagreements I might have with him, knows about writing. He makes an excellent argument in Characters and Viewpoint when he mentions that you can’t pull too often on the same heartstrings without turning the situation into a (possibly grotesque) form of comedy. It’s why over the top horror films can leave an audience laughing. The first time someone charges into a room screaming “I’ll do it, don’t think I won’t,” we may flinch and recoil. By the eighth time that happens, we’re left wondering “Who is this person? Why the fuck do I care about them? And who left the door open?” They become a punchline rather than tragedy or horror.
“What is it Lassie? Did Timmy fall down the well? Again?”