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Everyone has a handful of favorite characters; whether they are deep and sensitive or humorous. There is no science on this and our view on characters has changed enormously. We look at Shakespeare’s characters and believe they are good because they are realistic. In his day the character were seen as types and not approximate to a notion of realism or naturalism.

For me the best characters are nuanced, complex: they are believable by their depth, and their faults, all which are several and small. They are truly subjective creatures. But they are not necessarily realistic, say, in the way that TV and soap opera renders character. The weakest are typically blockbuster movie characters, really just caricatures – as they are exaggerated and unsubtle.

Dickens’s characters have always seemed to me slim stereotypes, but Balzac’s more diverse and intriguing, certainly his women are more vital than the Englishman’s.

Probably the most difficult are the every woman (man) type, not only to make sufficiently interesting but also to be appealing for a reader. These characters speak about most people. In a few of the stories on Nine Avenues characters like these are voiced.

In “Transcendence” a husband, a very ordinary man in his own words thinks about some very large abstract ideas and how they might help him understand the world. Likewise, the narrator in “Becoming” has failed to make much of anything in his life and he has come to accept it and as a consequence it has made him somewhat passive. The man in” And Then” is morally compromised; he takes the easy options and hopes to avoid the adult decisions. These men will not appeal to some readers because of their failures, but they seem to me the most interesting characters.

The Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler created a memorable and strong character in Barney Panofsky, far from perfect, but a burbling torrent of words and jokes, an ideal creation in a book. His moral weaknesses are the things that make him human, although he is only a series of words and phrases.

Guy Cranswick
14 January 2013