As someone who reads a lot of nonfiction, especially history, and a fair amount of fiction as well, I am struck by the differences between history and fiction when it comes to characters. This is especially true when one looks at longer collections of fiction, such as a lengthy series. If one is reading genre series fiction, there will typically be a hero or heroine, along with several major supporting characters, who appear in many stories, and these characters will be written with a fair amount of faithfulness to a given conception of character. Characters may develop over the course of a novel, but there will be an essential core to their nature that will be appreciated by readers, who enjoy seeing how a character that is basically known and understood will triumph over the difficulties of the plot, which will happen because series fiction tends to be fairly optimistic and often comedic in nature. Each novel will have a certain amount of tension as a serious problem needs to be overcome, but the existence of a long series of novels will tend to confirm a basic optimism in the fate of the main characters, who will be tested and confirmed in their essential goodness in the eyes of the reader and will end up all right. It is little wonder that such material would be popular for readers of all ages, because in a subtle way it tends to encourage us that everything will end up alright in our own lives, and sometimes we need that encouragement greatly.
It should be noted that not all fiction corresponds to this particular pattern. Comic books are notorious for unpleasant and pessimistic endings in a given storyline, but the fact that for super heroes death is never forever means that there is always a high likelihood that a hero who has died will be resurrected by some kind of technology or magic, or that a given ugly outcome will be undone through an alternate timeline, interference from an alternate universe, or the involvement of time travel to set things right again. Again, this sort of convention allows for negative outcomes, but at the cost that none of these outcomes are ever final, so that no character can ever be counted out completely, because they are always capable of restoration by some means. While this provides for a maximum of freedom in constructing a given plot, it also tends to reduce the seriousness and gravity of any of the plots because nothing is ever final, so no deed or accomplishment has real emotional depth. It would appear, therefore, that comic books, in their choice of means by which to deal with the desire to combine freedom of plot with freedom of consequences that conventional fiction provides a greater deal of realistic comfort, and that the approach of comic books can be somewhat counterproductive in encouraging behavior that lacks an awareness of consequences. It should be noted as well that comic book movies tend to focus on continuity, like more conventional genre fiction, but that the overall behavior of movie studios focuses so much attention on rebooting franchises and remaking movies that contemporary film and television culture is a lot like the comic book culture by which no plot or movie or outcome is final, because something that does not work well enough will be retooled and repackaged and rebooted.
Often real life is stranger than fiction, for a variety of reasons. For one, sometimes people behave as if they are in comic books, with no consequences to behavior, even though the real world is full of real and sometimes painful consequences. At other times people behave with what seems like a great inconstancy of character, making it difficult to understand exactly what people are up to. Because people are more complicated than fictional heroes, we cannot fully grasp the motivations and complexities of the behavior of others (or ourselves) to the same degree of satisfaction that we can grasp the motivations of fictional characters. Often, even more ominously, we may think we understand people when we do not, so that their actions subsequent to a misunderstanding may confirm a mistaken impression and that communication, no matter how sincere or open, may fail in its intents to enlighten others as to reality. It is by these means that our lives approach the levels of tragedy or farce (depending on our perspective). At other times, still more ominously, our lack of certainty about when and how and whether things will end up alright tends to make our lives more stressful than they would be otherwise. When we read a novel, we may have confidence in a given author that everything will end up alright, and we may strongly identify with the characters in the novel, but we do so from a position outside the novel, so the stakes are not as high. If an author kills off a character we love, we may simply dismiss the author and pick up another book to read. It is an act of considerable more importance to trust the author of our fates, knowing that we are in the story, and not merely outside observers of it. The stakes of being in the story are much higher, for it is our lives and our hopes and our well-being that is at risk.
It is therefore a matter of supreme importance to know the character of our author well, and to know what type of character we are in our own stories and in the lives of others. It is also of supreme importance to know what type of story we are in. For example, the novels of P.G. Wodehouse are famous as lighthearted comedies where a series of complicated plots gets layered and layered further into the realms of apparent tragedy but always end up alright in the end. If we know the author of a tale is P.G. Wodehouse, we know it will be a comedy, and that it will ultimately end up happily, and characters will go back to bragging about their prized pigs or pumpkins, go drinking at the local club, or will otherwise return to a state of stasis from which they began. If our author is Jane Austen, we know there will be a lot of weddings in the future for ourselves and our friends and relatives, and that if we are main character, that things will end up alright for us, even if the world itself is not perfect. On the other hand, woe be to us if we happen to find ourselves in the hand of a Russian novelist, who will send us to some gruesome gulag or drive us insane, or break apart our families and dash our every hope, finishing a lengthy novel with a lengthy essay about free will and determinism by which we will be shown to be mere puppets in a cruel object lesson. Let us hope we are able to determine what kind of story we are in, and what kind of author we have, so that we are able to enjoy an ending that richly rewards our anxious care on the pages of our lives.