A couple of times in the last year I've had conversations about verisimilitude in fiction. During one conversation, in my critique group, a friend talked about a theory of fiction that he'd found, wherein the author stated that characters should have an easily identifiable problem that should be solved by the end of the book. This had been mentioned to me as well by a colleague who gave me an excellent critique of my novel Rock of and pointed out that she didn't feel Ozzie had a clear through-line.
Later that week, one of my many friends who rarely reads fiction mentioned that he didn't think neat story lines and tidy character goals were very realistic, because life doesn't happen like that.
Both times I described a personal theory of fiction, which is the line between what I see as the two major forms - pulp and literature. Pulp fiction is largely driven by plot - things happen, characters resolve them. Many times pulp characters are Mary Sues. Mary Sues are unreasonably exceptional individuals, of one sort or another, characters with extraordinary talents and few substantial weaknesses, just moral failings that are usually vices.
Literary fiction is driven by verisimilitude. Characters observe situations and react to them, being changed in the process.
The rule that a character should have an easily identifiable problem is necessary for pulp, but irrelevant for literature, where verisimilitude is important. Now, although much of genre fiction is pulp, genre and literature are not exclusive. Noire fiction is almost certainly literature. 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson, is a great example of literary science fiction, driven by character interactions, with plot entirely secondary. And let’s admit that literature is another genre - a taste.
When I think about the kind of characters I like, the ones I go back to again and again, I think of larger than life figures that have an element of verisimilitude, a problem that is not easily resolved, intractable problems that run off the edges of their story. An easily fixed emotional problem is not something I identify with. I love John Constantine, Dream of the Endless, from Zoo City , and every self mutilating character in a Tim Powers novel.
I like tragic characters who can’t seem to do anything without accidentally (or sometimes on purpose: can’t make an omelets without breaking a few eggs) fucking over their friends. Those kind of pulp characters seem like an operatic metaphor for middle management, frankly.
I like pulp and I like literature. I like the novels of Kim Stanley Robinson and Bonnie Jo Campbell because they write character driven stories, with characters whose concerns are deeply personal and small scale and present themselves gradually. I like pulp fiction because I want those characters to kick ass. Frankenstein’s monster? Grievously wounded by his father, but somehow loving him just the same? Eight feet tall with the grace of a chimp? That’s a literary character that can kick some ass.
It was the monster’s remorse that enabled me to project a character going forward, to bring him into a modern narrative. An eight foot tall man, built with a process that regenerates dead flesh. Perpetually. A passionate character who would learn from his mistakes, and after two hundred and fifty years would be sure of himself and world-weary and kind and horribly, horribly pragmatic. And could kick serious ass. A character who needed a first name, and took it from the title of the book Mary Shelley made from a sea captain’s letters. That's the direction I took to my monster, Detective Prometheus Frankenstein. Theo for short.