I taught a class recently and we looked at some openings to novels. ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, for example, masterfully provides the reader with a ton of information about Holden Caulfield in the very first page or so but without you realising. It informs you on two levels: the details of his life but more importantly how he feels about it. So, in a very short space of time, you’re following the story of a fully realised human being.

By contrast, the opening of the first Harry Potter is peopled by cartoon characters like the Dursleys. Mrs has a long neck which is, apparently, useful for looking into the neighbours’ gardens; Mr is fat and no-necked with a large moustache and therefore a villain in the making, and so on. Harry, when he appears, is not much better.

Which, if true, raises an obvious question: why do millions and millions of people like Harry Potter? Plenty of people like ‘Catcher in the Rye’ too, of course, but not with the same fanatical devotion. And these are fans who don’t just love the book, in some cases they vigorously attack anyone who doesn’t (as can be seen for example on Amazon customer review discussion threads).

One view might be that children prefer characters they can identify with and that’s easier to do when their fictional hero leaves plenty of space on the inside. And it could be true the same principle also applies to a lot of Harry’s adult fans, too. It would certainly explain the attacks on the non-believers, as if it’s the fan him/herself that’s being criticised, not a fictional character.

This response wouldn’t work with Holden Caulfield, because he is too well-formed. Harry, by contrast, is not only vacant for the most part, he doesn’t appear to have much motivation for what he does. Similarly, the world he lives in appears to be driven by random magic and random morality. We’re never told why Harry is the good guy and Voldermort the baddie. Not in terms that would explain their character at any rate, and or would begin to fill in the space. Which means readers are free to take with them their own feelings about magic, and good vs evil, and why friendships happen, and thereby become part of the book.

You don’t really join ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. However, I’d argue that if you open yourself to it, then, rather than you filling the empty spaces in Holden Caulfield, his emotional journey touches similar emotions in you. So, in a sense, the book gets inside you, not the other way around.

But of course that can be dangerous. Putting yourself in Harry and his world is safe, because it’s never going to challenge what’s driving you. You can take the theme park ride through the exterior scenes, inside its world but not its world inside you.

So, I believe identifying with characters has two main aspects to it: either you occupy the empty centre of the character, like putting on a super hero suit for a party, which means the character doesn’t really exist, he’s just a fantasy vehicle, or you identify with the character’s difficult moral choices, and the dilemmas he has to face.

With the latter, you don’t occupy him so to speak, instead you walk alongside him and encounter the same awful turning points, torturous embarrassments, long dark nights of the soul that he does.

I’d argue that the first, while appearing to be the more immersive option is actually a way of muting the emotional punch of the story. But the second, while apparently less involved, is actually the braver option, emotionally.

It’s similar with fans: they wear the same costumes as their heroes, and they learn every adventure inside out that those heroes have ever had. But what they perhaps don’t do is use the example of the hero as a starting point for their own emotional adventures.

And if the hero ever entered that fan room and found it full of people wearing his clothes and striking his poses, and if he was looking for someone who could actually join him on a new, so far unscripted, adventure, would he choose any of them? Or would he instead, scan the edges of the room and see the quiet one in a dark corner, dressed normally but returning his gaze with the same self-generated intensity, unnoticed by the others?

There are more fans than corner-huggers, of course. And that presents the writer with a dilemma. Does he try to produce characters that can be easily identified with or does he instead work to create people who are full of purpose and who will make it possible for the reader to join them, in spirit if not in the flesh, but not to take them over and be them the way a lot of readers most want them to be?

Just to complicate things, it’s a lot of fun being a fan. You get out and meet other fans, and have a good time at conventions. Being a corner-hugging solo reader who doesn’t get to put on his superhero tights and cape requires more, well, self-sustainability perhaps. As with all things, there are prices to pay on both sides of the line. And if you want to be an effective writer you have to be willing to pay them both, constantly.


I once went on a date with a woman I met through a newspaper singles page. We got together in person in a wine bar in Victoria. I bought drinks and we started talking. She told me something about herself, then I talked but after only a few minutes, she said, “Do you know what your problem is, Terry?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to know but before I could answer she said, “You’re too deep.” She said ‘deep’ as if it was a disease. “You need to lighten up.” I got up without finishing my drink, said “Goodbye,” and walked out.

It wasn’t really the first time. Not on a date, exactly. Frequently I’d had people come up to me and say things like, “Smile – it might never happen!” when I’d just been happily thinking.

It took me many years to work out that the problem wasn’t with me being deep, it was more with them being shallow. At least where causality and motive are concerned.

Writers need to face the ‘deep’ problem, and with their date – the reader. But let’s get something out of the way right from the start: ‘deep’ is not the chronically serious/intellectual disease that the shallow like to declare. It’s simply being thorough. Those who don’t like deep are actually just avoiding responsibility. You don’t need a degree in theoretical physics to work out when someone you’re close to wants support; you just need to care.

So, while readers might care about the facts of the matter of their obsession, they don’t necessarily care about the hidden, important stuff that makes their favourite characters tick. Readers identify with characters but they don’t chaperone; they don’t parent; they don’t coach them. That’s the writer’s job.

Readers may think a lot about characters and plots and details, but they don’t take on the responsibility of creating and maintaining the largely unseen mental and emotional buttressings that ensure there is depth behind the stories.

A writer should never apologise for depth. He should revel in it; gladly accept what it means – which is to be always building it, with thought and belief and invention. He never settles for the comfort of simply amassing knowledge from the already-created.

Depth is commitment, in terms of time and love and belief. And a writer has to be very careful not to dilute it, in order to, say, please the immediate needs of the reader. If he does, the result can be stories that the reader finds easily accessible, immediately satisfying, but in the long term somewhat unsatisfying.

Readers dip in and out of stories but a writer is never off. He won’t always actually be writing. In fact some writers use writing as a way of not being on, odd though that sounds. But the act of putting words on a page can be avoiding the responsibility of depth. Let’s face it, many commercial writers hardly ever stop writing but in the process usually manage to avoid much depth.

Depth in our own person probably derives more from what goes wrong in our lives, not according to plan; from losing when we’d expected to win; from unfair and unexpected slaps in the face. And let’s remember that many readers disappear into a book in order to escape those very slaps in the face.

But that doesn’t mean a writer should produce characters that he believes readers will feel comfortable with. Part of a reader’s need to escape is in fact to spend time with characters who have the very depth he hopes to win for himself, even if he isn’t aware of it.

And again, characters with depth doesn’t necessarily mean they have grim, ‘realistic’, outlooks on a miserable life. Depth can mean the challenge of spontaneous humour, wit, the ability to elevate any situation with insight. And in this, the always-on writer may find himself having to constantly navigate between the demands of the so-called social interpretation skills of literary fiction that is also often spiritually hollow, and the more honest entertaining commercial stories that can ultimate disappoint by never attempting to be more than the sum of their genre-specific parts.

Depth is found in the cracks between the various worlds of demanded compliance we’re all constantly confronted by. As soon as a story of genuine idiosyncrasy is discovered it’s turned into a cult. An enthusiastic but derivative story about a boy wizard is turned into an infallible religion which the author is only too willing to follow. A thrilling novel about teens having to fight to the death is extended into a repetitional cash cow.

Depth is the cradle of real magic; shallow just chases uninformed applause.