So, I’ve decided to start a new regular post – to go with my review on Mondays, I’m going to post a Character Study – looking at interesting, well written characters in books, films and television – every wednesday.
To kick start things in style, here is Greg House M.D.
Name: Doctor Gregory House
Book/Film/TV Show: He’s the titular character of the TV show House M.D.
Personality: A brash, rude and uncouth genius who prizes solving the ‘puzzle’ above human relationships and, well, everything else.
Why They’re a Great Character: This is likely to be a recurring trend, as I have a certain taste for the crazy ones, but I may as well start as I mean to go on…
House is not a character that is likeable in any way, really. He’s rude, spiteful and manipulative – winding up his employees just to see their reactions and to solve the puzzle of their behaviours and their secrets. He suffers pain from an old injury every day, for which he takes narcotics that he has become addicted to, causing him to act irrationally when he can’t get his next fix. But still, there’s something about him that ultimately makes you route for him – the show wouldn’t have survived seven seasons if there wasn’t – something that makes you fall a little bit in love with him, despite yourself. And it’s not all to do with Hugh Laurie’s blue, blue eyes.
Creating a character who is a genius is risky business. To use the Fanfiction vernacular, you run the risk of creating a Mary Sue – a character so perfect, so brilliant, they come across as false, or worse: as authorial wish fulfilment. I’ve seen character questionnaires on the internet before, such as this one that are intended to help you avoid the pitfalls of such perfect characters and create a well rounded, believable individuals. Such quizzes, obviously, should be taken with a pinch of salt (I just did it for one of my characters and got annoyed because a lot of the questions sort of apply, and you feel obliged in the spirit of honesty to tick them, but they aren’t really referring to the same context as the story. Incidentally, the character scored 24, which is apparently borderline-Sue. I think her downfall was the heels and leather question.) but if you feel any concern at all that your characters aren’t well rounded, believable individuals, you could do much worse than watching a few episodes of House.
I think what makes him so fascinating (and attractive. Yes, dammit, attractive.) is the fact that his obsession – root of many of his major flaws – is actually a major strength too. I always talk about the same episode when I talk about House and how I’m not so secretly totally in love with him, and that’s S2Ep22 Forever, in which House treats a woman and her young son, who both have life threatening symptoms. There’s a moment in it when the baby is in considerable danger, and House throws his walking stick to one side and runs to the baby to try and save it. It’s a small scale superhero moment, but a superhero moment all the same. His need to save the baby – not for any altruistic means, granted, it’s just so he has time to solve the puzzle – overwhelms his pain, his disability and drives him to do whatever is necessary.
The other big drive in his life, to balance out the ‘genius’ element of his personality, is his addiction to Vicodin. Across the fifth and sixth season, this addiction really comes to the fore as House starts to unravel and he and his colleagues have to deal with the fallout. And the writers aren’t afraid to drag him to some very dark places – he steals, blackmails, hurts people – but he still remains a sympathetic character, because you know there is good in there, beneath the addiction, and you keep watching because you want to see him saved.
That’s the fine line characters have to walk to be interesting – they have to be sympathetic, they have to be likeable, but they also have to be vulnerable to the things we ourselves are vulnerable to: greed, pride, pain, loneliness… whatever it is, they have to have a weakness somewhere in the armour. And it’s no good saying ‘my character’s weakness is their fear of being alone’ if you never put them in danger of being alone, if you never have them making bad decisions due to that fear.
These things are important for any character, but especially important when your character has a skill or intelligence that puts them anywhere near the ‘genius’ category. No one liked the know-it-all smart kid at school (I know because I was that kid) until they realised that while that kid might outshine them in Maths and Physics, they can’t throw a ball to save their life, or they have a terrible fear of spiders, or whatever it is that stops them being a walking encyclopaedia and makes them human.
And House, with his sarcastic comebacks, his limp and his genius, is very definitely human.