Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Strong characters and strength of characters

A recent blog talked about good books for writing. It got me thinking about what makes a book satisfying and memorable. Obviously excellent writing and an interesting theme are on the list but a strong character is what makes a great book.

Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play by the same name has become world renown. He was a character with many flaws. He displays revenge in thought and deeds, and insanity, which Shakespeare uses to advance the play to its tragic end.

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most believable protagonists in recent literature. He seems like he should be a real person. Even though the location and time of Doyle’s stories are foreign to us, Arthur Conan Doyle lays the plot enabling us to follow Sherlock in his efforts to solve a crime. We can admire Sherlock’s uncanny ability to reason out a problem and solve the mystery. The same could be said for Miss Jane Marple.

Catcher in the Rye is banned in some cities and touted as one of the best coming of age novels in others. The author has made Holden Caulfield a combination of youthful exuberance and ignorance. We receive glimpses of the man he is to become by his intolerance of “phonies” and cheer him on. We cry when he does.

Scout and Atticus Finch are a memorable pair of characters. To Kill a Mockingbird is told from Scout’s perspective but Salinger cleverly depicts the prejudices toward black people in south through his marvelous protagonist, the father, Atticus Finch. We loved him for his standing up as a moral leader and teaching his two children courage and compassion along the way. Boo Radley, although a minor character, was so well drawn in our minds, that we felt like he was our neighbor instead of Scout’s.

Tarzan and Superman spurred the imagination of young children and filled our lives as adults with pleasant memories. Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, although appearing a quiet, conforming character displayed strength when he would not tell where the brave, run away, female slaves were hiding. Tom was pivotal in bringing to the forefront the horrors of slavery and the injustice to another human being. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are still teaching us lessons today.

Two fictional characters you may not have thought of are Dick and Jane of learning to read textbooks in early elementary school. The author did not tell us much about these siblings but they gave a lot of us a pleasant start to reading on our way to writing.

Lucy Pollard-Gott has written a fascinating book on the topic of memorable fictional characters, 100 Best Fictional Characters; Ranking the Most Influential Characters in World Literature and Legend. It is an engaging book where each chapter is devoted to a fictional character. Not only is it interesting, it makes the reader think of strong protagonists and antagonists. The real exercise is to contemplate what made those characters unforgettable and transfer that to our writing.


Jan Cline said...

I so agree on the To Kill A Mockingbird characters. Who has watched that film or read the book and not believed they wanted Atticus for their father? That's a stong character!

Nancy Owens Barnes said...

A wonderful post, Jennifer, full of memorable characters with glimpses of why they are memorable. What a great thing for writers who create characters that remain in the minds of readers for decades.