Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Character builder

 ...if I am going to identify with anything, it is usually feelings or emotions or ways of thinking rather than actual characters.... I’ve always thought there was a dearth of certain kinds of personalities, though, and my question has been, do I not identify because people tend not to write about characters who I would identify with, or is it simply the way that I approach books that prevents me from more closely seeing myself in other characters?

This struck me as another "what do we want from our fiction" kind of essay, one that made me think about not only how it applies to movies, but to my own novel - still plugging away at it after three years.

The blogger uses Jane Austen's Mansfield Park and the character Fanny Price as a basis. I have read nothing by Austen, so I can't speak to her points regarding that example. Looking through my library, I find a few books with protagonists who might also be considered passive: Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Louis in Interview with the Vampire, Pecola in The Bluest Eye. I may have found it hard to relate to some of them, but not to sympathize.

Now that I think about it, I can't recall many books in which I truly identified with the protagonist - Hesse's Siddhartha, perhaps - but I don't think that's necessarily a problem. One of the best pieces of fiction-writing advice I've gotten to date is this: it's better to write with one person in mind rather than many. In trying to please a wide audience, the logic goes, one ends up pleasing nobody, so as a writer, one is better off keeping a specific individual in mind and composing one's story accordingly. (I know who I'm writing my novel for based on this concept, but I'm not telling.)

As a reader, the odds of that individual being you are too high to ponder. I tend not to think about it when I'm choosing a book. Nick Hornby's protagonists are generally easier for me to empathize with, despite the occasional cultural differences that come with him being a Brit. Jhumpa Lahiri, however, writes characters pretty far removed from my realm of experience and that doesn't stop me from loving her books. Plus, when you throw sci-fi and fantasy into the mix, the differences are even more pronounced. (At the other extreme, I couldn't get more than fifty pages into A Confederacy of Dunces because I found the protagonist completely unlikable. That book wasn't written for me. C'est la vie.)

With movies, less is left to the imagination because you're watching the story unfold in front of you, rather than putting it together in your mind by reading, so identification is perhaps easier. Hollywood bends over backwards trying to make their movies appeal to broad audiences. Maybe that's why many of them tend to not linger long in the memory despite all the hype generated around them. (I touched on this when I discussed the Russell Crowe Robin Hood.)

I've talked before about how deeply I identify with Ben Affleck in Chasing Amy because of where I was in life when I first saw that film. It's one in which I truly feel as if Kevin Smith wrote it for me - but that's a rare feeling. I suspect the blogger may want to feel it more often from the books she reads, but the more I think about it, the more I doubt that's possible. If it does, great, but I don't think it's worth dwelling on much.


  1. I've never felt a need to relate to characters, although sometimes that has happened.

    I first saw, and then read, True Grit when I was 12 years old. I felt a kinship to Mattie Ross because here was a kid, a girl in a western (I loved westerns) who spoke her mind to adults. At that age I was never myself around adults. She was a character that grew to mean a lot to me as aspirational.

  2. I would imagine that sense of identifying with a character is stronger when one is a child and more easily impressionable.