Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Of Characters

My mom and I realized something over the Christmas break: that she likes books for their plot lines and I love them for their characterization and writing style. I love reading about a character whose traits fit perfectly. I think of characters as 3-D puzzles with unique curvature, outjuts and inlets, each their own shape. These characters have so many talents and weaknesses, fears and quirks, that you'd think all the descriptions of them would bulge out awkwardly and make a ragged outer surface on the container that couldn't contain. But, they don't. Somehow, they don't. The surfaces are smooth and the containers seem to have the ability to be all-encompassing. There is no limit to a person.

Once you know the character well enough, you know what makes him upset, what types of people he gets along with, what makes him nervous, and what his dreams are. There comes a point in the book when your response to his action is, "Oh, John, he would do that.." or "Of course that bothered him.." And you don't know this because you've seen him before. He's not a cookie-cutter character we see over and over again. Nor did you predict his action because it fulfilled something that needed to happen in the typical storyline and was therfore assigned to a character--any character--regardless of whether or not it's actually something the character would do. No, you can predict him because you understand him. Because looking at his traits you see hundreds rather than twenty. And they all connect and interconnect.

Your character John has some of the same components as does Huck Finn and Frodo Baggins and Scarlett O'Hara, but none of these characters have every one of his components. Someone may have a dominant personality that is very like the person John feels he needs to be and tries to be when Sarah is around. But the characters are still different. Nowhere in the world is there another like John.

Sometimes these different characteristics seem as if they could never describe the same person. But they end up doing just that, going into the same person. And they do so unexpectedly smoothly, like those smooth curves of the 3-D puzzle. They go together differently in John than anyone else. And their arrangement in John fits perfectly, just like their arrangement (amongst other descriptors) in Huck Finn fits perfectly.

Now, characters can be introduced in many ways, but they all fall under two main methods. The author can list traits flat out or can show you traits through events. An example of each is below. The two quotes were taken from Little Women, one of my favorite books of all time with perhaps the greatest character development of all time.

"Poor Meg seldom complained, but a sense of injustice made her feel bitter toward everyone sometimes, for she had not yet learned to know how rich she was in the blessings which alone can make life happy." (Little Women, p35)

"That night, when Beth played to Mr. Laurence in the twilight, Laurie, standing in the shadow of the curtain, listened to the little David, whose simple music always quieted his moody spirit, and watched the old man, who sat with his gray head on his hand, thinking tender thoughts of the dead child he had loved so much. Remembering the conversation of the afternoon, the boy said to himself, with the resolve to make the sacrifice cheerfully, 'I'll let my castle go, and stay with the dear old gentleman while he needs me, for I am all he has.'" (Little Women, p136)

The latter exerpt is one of my favorite passages; the imagery and characterization is so beautiful to me. So many things about the characters of Mr. Laurence and Laurie can be pulled from this. The two unwind from a long day by listening to Beth play; we know Beth is precious to Mr. Laurence because she reminds him of his child and that she is precious to Laurie because he loves each of the March girls; we also see that the music is a means of relaxation to the two, which, in the case of Laurie, who loves to play and compose, is no surprise, but in the case of Mr. Laurence, who seems to wish Laurie'd play less, is a surprise. Laurie standing hidden in the curtain, listening to "the little David" is not only a beautiful image, but shows a bit about his character and his relationship with his grandfather. We learn Laurie must feel strongly toward those with whom he discussed in order to want to change (March girls). Mr. Laurence's character and occasional harshness could be due to the death of his beloved daughter. . .

Obviously I prefer the second method. There is so much to deduce. And often times I can see more or less--or simply differently--than someone else. Therefore, the Laurie in my mind is different than the Laurie in yours. And, of course, my Laurie is based off of me--my experiences and my preferences--as is yours based off of you. So he means so much more to me than yours would to me. And he reminds me of me. And I LOVE that. That's why we read. To create our own.

You can give me the most boring story ever written and as long as I can fall in love with characters that are beautiful in their complexity and with a writing style that is effortless and artistic, I'll love it forever.

Welp, that's that...


Melissa said...

Oh Morgan. What a great post. I totally agree. Remember the conversation we had about Twilight v. Harry Potter? Harry Potter has waaaay better characters because they're developed so well. And bravo on the Little Women quotes :)

Alexa Justesen said...

I love that you love "Little Women" just as much as I do! I think I've read it about 15 times and seen the movie maybe 25. :)