Thursday, August 8, 2013

Living Characters, Head Canon, and Anderson's Socks

I've said before that I'm a very character-driven reader. Plot, setting, and all the rest are very important to me, but if I can't connect to the characters, all hope is lost. I don't need to agree with a character's choices or even particularly like them (though liking them does help), but I need to be able to fundamentally connect with characters on some level to be able to enjoy a book.

I've extended this desire to the point that I can usually tell how beloved a book will become based on how highly I rate the secondary characters. Last year, I even made a spot in my end of the year survey for an entire secondary character lovefest. Unlike the main character, love interest, or villain, the secondary characters are too often ignored and underdeveloped. Instead of being treated as the living, breathing people that they are, they are relegated to mere props, pulled in to perform some task in a scene and then dismissed. If an author can make me believe in the secondary characters, then he or she is likely to take the same care with the rest of the story.

Until recently, I didn't give much thought to my love of secondary characters or my need for characters who feel alive. I like what I like. And then I found this Tumblr feed. For those who don't know, head canon is the stuff you fill in about established characters in your own imagination. As opposed to official canon, head canon can vary from person to person. So while official canon might state well-known details such as Sherlock's love of the violin or Watson's service in the war, your head canon can decide why and when Sherlock started playing the violin or who Watson served with.

A lot of head canon involves theories and backstories and crazy conspiracies. How else can we hope to explain the craziness that was The Reichenbach Fall? (No, I'm not linking anything to that. If you don't know, I won't spoil it. If you do know, I won't retraumatize you.) I enjoyed that part of the BBC Sherlock head canon. But in among the crazy theories and wild speculation are the quieter posts, the ones that make me the happiest. Ones like these:

And the one that started it all:

Anderson, a minor two-bit character, wears socks to bed. It's such a tiny detail, one that would never make it into the overarching narrative of the story, one that makes no difference whatsoever whether it's true or not. And yet when I read that simple sentence, I sat back in my chair, suddenly impressed by the absolute rightness of it all. Of course Anderson wears socks to bed. Of course he does. What a uniquely Anderson thing to do. Molly doesn't wear socks to bed. I doubt Lestrade does either. But Anderson does, because he's Anderson, and Anderson wears socks to bed whether the creators of the show tell us he does or not.

The best characters are like the characters on Sherlock. As readers, we may only learn the big things, like a character's love of the violin or previous opium addiction or service in the war. These details are the things that are necessary to the story at hand. But the best author will also know the little details, the ones that may never be revealed on the page but nevertheless give a character physical presence.

Authors, please, give your characters life. We may not need to know if your character wears socks to bed or if her aunt collects stamps or her love interest can speak Klingon. But you should know. They're your creations. They cannot truly come to life without you. True, full-bodied, autonomous life requires detail. When I read your books, I want to have the feeling that even once the book is done and my eyes are no longer upon them, your characters are still out there, walking about, living, breathing.

In other words, authors,

Time for your thoughts! What authors that you've read have embraced the principle of Anderson's socks? Do you look for this type of character autonomy when reading?