While chatting with my roommates last week, we ended up discussing the idea of character serendipity — which we defined as that moment when a character (or characters) in a story have a consistent and interesting arc and personality, and even if the worldbuilding and plot don’t live up to their promises, the(se) character(s) “reward” someone looking with a great and memorable personality. These are the characters that stick with you even if everything about their greater narrative is forgettable.
And obviously, everyone has a different set of standards for what makes a character memorable and what makes a story forgettable. That’s why serendipity, because it’s all chance and circumstance in the end. I have a friend who’s into strong, tough fighters with buried trauma and a soft spot for a chosen few… and bonus points if they’re missing (or lose) an eye or an arm. It actually happens more than you’d think.*
* The whole losing eyes and/or limbs thing seems to be more prevalent in Japanese media than US media, but we did watch Thor: Ragnarok last night, and there was definitely a point near the end where I laughed inappropriately due to a certain turn of events.
In our conversation, one of my roommates called making this happen partially instinct, which I liked and agreed with as a phrasing. It’s that sense that comes from our experiences with ourselves and others in our lives, and from other characters we’ve seen with story conclusions that have made meaningful sense to us as an audience. One develops a certain sense of what are “realistic” or “understandable” directions for a character to progress.
Again, everyone has a different idea of what makes a good or compelling character. There’s a whole battalion of female characters in big-name franchises who have suffered because their male writers felt that taking their arcs in a certain direction was right, only to create an awkward teenage-boy fantasy to be put into her place. I’ve seen a similar argument made about women writing m/m fiction. There is plenty of discourse on the subject, and I’d rather leave most of that to the people who’ve done their proper research.
The point is that most everyone does have a certain “feel” for how character arcs should go, or how pieces fit together. Writers make their careers, paid or otherwise, in refining that instinct for sharing; it’s their responsibility, so to speak, to keep a consistent traceable characterization throughout the course of a story. And as a writer, I’ve always tried my hardest to do that. Of course my success is variable, because there’s no such thing as a perfect writer or story, but I have at least tried to stay consistently true to the story I am trying to write.
On the flip side, as a reader, it can be quite rewarding to see a character have a nicely-released and fully fleshed out arc that comes together without needing explicit explanation. And for me, at least, a character with their own strong story can bolster or even outright save their larger framing canon.
I’ve definitely fallen prey to overthinking it, too, on both sides of the process. One of my worst habits as a writer is to have something so solidified in my head alone that I forget it hasn’t been translated, even subtly, to actual words. If a character’s arc is a mystery explained by their story, then it doesn’t help to leave out any of the key clues. And as a reader, I’ve definitely grabbed onto little throwaway bits and comments in order to justify why I would characterize someone the way that I do. Of course the character snapped, look at these scattershot hints here and here. Of course they’re in love, look at how they treat each other in this one particular scene. It’s the serendipity of the moment.
Sometimes that’s embarrassing (honestly it’s more when I do it on the writer’s side, and then my girlfriend has to gently remind me that people cannot, in fact, read my mind), but sometimes, it’s just fun. I’m not one for devil’s advocacy a lot of the time, but having a conversation (or two, or many) with someone who either is likeminded or at least open to the ideas you present can get a lot of fun conversation mileage. Why did this bright-eyed idealistic young man fall so hard and fast, but still manage to claw his way back to balanced sanity? Did this character who seemingly died as a villain actually have some sense of her sanity back before the end?
Maybe they’re not things explicitly explained within the context of the series itself, but as far as speculation goes, I am all for it.