What Danica Patrick and Denzel Washington Tell Us about Character

Two articles recently spurred my thinking about characters and character development in my novels. 

The first was an article by Virginia Postrel at Bloomberg.com on why actors such a Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, and Clint Eastwood are wildly popular and their characters seem to have enduring impact. (Hat tip to fellow author Tori Eldridge for alerting me to this article and, for full disclosure, Virginia is a former colleague of mine.) Virginia’s point is that the most successful actors, artistically and in the public image, are “escape personalities”; they have traits that audiences can project themselves into, including elements of their own lives. In essence, sitting in a movie theater, you experience the movie through the character because, as a viewer, you identify with the character and actor as well as what they represent, on screen and off. 
Notably, these characters don’t just represent professional depictions of characters; they also represent popular virtues. Virginia writes (Bloomberg, 21 February 2013):

“In different ways, the three stars [Hanks, Washington &
Eastwood] all represent similar audience yearnings — above all, the desire for
moral significance. Even when they take on ambiguous or immoral roles, these
stars always inhabit a universe where right and wrong have weight and
consequence. Hanks embodies decency. Eastwood represents inner-directedness and
order. And Washington
portrays the high-stakes struggle for righteousness and honor — all the more
so when he plays fallen or villainous men.”

I find this is true for my characters in my books when my readers respond to them. My readers don’t just see the characters as something to be consumed. They experience the story and the book through the characters because they identify with key character traits, perceptions, or other elements of their personalities. I’ve found this to be particularly true for Maria, the self-conscious seventh grader fighting bullies and gangs in her urban middle-school in Renegade, and Isabella, the defiant escaped slave captaining a pirate ship in the 18th century Caribbean in the Pirate of Panther Bay

This brings me to Danica Patrick, the first woman to win the pole position (lead position at the start of the race) at the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl of stock car racing. Patrick has been around the racing world for a long time, first in “open wheel” Indy cars, and then for the past several years in stock-car racing. Since winning the pole at the Daytona 500 last Sunday, Patrick has seen interest in her and her popularity rocket into the stratosphere. NASCAR’s top stars–men–are now bringing their daughters to meet her when last year she was all but ignored. More relevantly, the daughters are asking their fathers who she is, and their fathers are (fortunately) embracing their sports newest celebrity. 

Patrick was in a gym recently when a crewman from another team
walked up and showed her a video of his kids holding up a magazine with Danica
on the cover.

“They said my name and he said, ‘I have no idea
how they know who you are,’ ” Patrick said.

Patrick marvels at the attention and attraction
she has for kids.

“I have no idea. I don’t get it either,” she
said. “I don’t know where it is coming from. I don’t know if it’s something
that they see on TV that doesn’t seem to be so obvious to a parent or if their
kids, once they are in school, if it’s part of some curriculum. I’m not really

“I think it’s an interesting thing, though. It’s
very flattering and it’s a fortunate situation to find myself in. I enjoy being
inspirational to these kids. I’d love to know why.”

Given Virginia’s insights in her Bloomberg article, we now have an answer for Danica Patrick, and the answer is relevant for authors more generally: Patrick has become a personality that stands for something much greater than her role as a driver, or even a woman driving in a male-dominated sport. She has become a public personality through which average, everyday people can project their own lives through Danica’s experiences as a top level driver. That’s why to her fans she will be known as Danica, not Ms. Patrick–her fans will live through her on the track and off, and it will be a personal relationship, not a formal one.
We aspire for the same level of identification with the characters we write in our novels. When our readers start projecting their own lives into the experiences of our characters in our stories, we have hit a home run, artistically and professionally. 
Author: SR Staley
SR Staley has one more than 11 literary awards for his fiction and nonfiction writing. He is on the full-time faculty of the College and Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University as well as a film critic and research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California. His award-winning Pirate of Panther Bay series (syppublishing.com) has won awards in historical fiction, mainstream & literary fiction, young adult fiction, and reached the finals in women's fiction. His most recent book is "The Beatles and Economics: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and the Making of a Cultural Revolution" due out in April 2020 (Routledge).