Charming characters can’t be trusted

800px-2445_-_Milano_-_Università_statale_-_Adolfo_Wildt_(1868-1931)_-_Sant'Ambrogio_-_Foto_Giovanni_Dall'Orto,_22-Feb--2008The character with charm, with the twinkle in the eye, who speaks noble words with the perfect voice, who makes the impassioned plea to turn the crowd around– the character with all the traits of charisma that we desire—that character doesn’t fare so well in fiction.

Historically charismatic leaders don’t have a long life span. Authors often reflects that reality.  In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar the charismatic Marc Antony has the well-known and often the quoted (and parodied) speech at Caesar’s funeral.  As a close friend of Caesar, he is permitted to speak at the funeral on the basis that he will not blame the  conspirators who assassinated Caesar.  But, Anthony displays the skill of his golden tongue. With just the right amount of sarcasm and emotional appeal, he begins to praise Caesar, and cast suspicion on the conspirators, until the people rise in rage to hunt down these men.

It would only seem natural that Antony would take his place as the leader after avenging  the death of his ally ,Caesar. However, history has shown that in the end he lost his life running from another member of the ruling triumvirate, named Octavius. Once a person is known for his charm, he cannot simply be pushed out of office. He must be destroyed.

Purely fictional characters that are charismatic also don’t have a good reputation. In Alan Paton’s novel Cry the Beloved Country, the main character, Stephen Kumalo, goes to visit his brother, who now has a reputation as a political activist.  John Kumalo has a deep commanding voice, that can draw in an audience and send them out fighting for their rights.  He has a passion to free blacks from injustices, such as separation from families to working in mines in which the white people make the huge profits. But John has a cowardly streak, as he speaks to gain attention more than he speaks to gain justice for his countryman. He is not brave enough to ruffle the feathers of the authorities when it comes time to call for action.

Why does the charismatic person seem to have great promise in real life but not in fiction? The first problem is that as much as we are drawn to those kinds of traits, such a person is suspect, simply too good to be true, when found in a novel. The trope of a smooth-tongued politician whose secret desire is to become another Hitler has been used a few too many times. There is also the possibility that authors are a bit jealous of personalities that appear larger than life in public. Their skill is in the written word, not in persuasive speaking. So, the best revenge is to turn the bold, charismatic character into a self-indulgent tyrant.

This entry was posted in Literary devices, Style and voice, Writer's resource, Writing trends. Bookmark the permalink.

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