When reading novels, we might remember scenes or places, but it’s a good character that really makes us connect to those scenes and want to be in those places. The novels we keep coming back to, the classics and soon-to-be classics, all have that in common. So what makes a character so great? Is it “bloody honesty,” that they’re made up of “faults and limitations as much as their virtues,” or is it a character’s conviction “to be who he is” or how she faces tragedy? Maybe her “off-kilter” perceptions are more attractive than we’d like to admit.
This week the panelists were asked: what is it that makes your character so fantastic?
DARCY FITZPATRICK on This All Happened
Oh the temptation, seeing a friend’s journal or diary left out and no one else around. If you’ve ever found yourself in this situation and caved into your guilty desire to pry into the secret life of someone close to you, no doubt you found yourself mildly disappointed as you turned page after woefully self-unaware page.
Not so with the one-year chronicle of Gabriel English’s life in This All Happened. He’s just so bloody honest. Almost unrealistically so. I think that’s a large part of what’s so appealing about his character. Would that we were all so in touch with our thoughts and feelings, able to condense them down to sublimely philosophical and acutely accurate sentences, as though our heart of hearts had its very own Twitter account.
What brings this super power of his back down to earth and allows the reader to really relate to Gabe is the fact that, much like engaging in the aforementioned social media platform du jour, it doesn’t seem to get him very far in life. Certainly not in his love life, which varies from vague to painfully pitiful. And as for his financial success, or lack thereof, it may well reach its apex in the story when Gabe manages to work out a settlement deal on a defaulted student loan.
Gabriel is working on a novel at the start of the book, and by the end we don’t find it lining the windows of every book store in the country. Winters would never be so crassly saccharin as to allow such a momentarily satisfying measure of his protagonist’s success to offend his readers’ sensibilities.
Gabe’s not exactly winning, but he’s trying.
The effort never ends for Gabriel English, but then neither does his perspicacity or his resolution to be inspired by it all. And dammit if that’s not inspiring.
JAMIE FITZPATRICK on The Wreckage
Like most of us, Wish and Sadie are unexceptional people defined by their faults and limitations as much as their virtues. Capsized by events – some of their own making, some beyond their control – they push through the years as best they can, and their best isn’t always good enough. It will all bog down in melodrama or banality if not for the skills of a terrific writer at the top of his game. Great fictional characters are individuals, particular and precise. But they’re more than that, because there’s so much in them that rings absolutely true. The Wreckage has that addictive quality I only find in great novels, the way they keep you up all night reading, greedy for more, the story clearing and clouding your head at the same time. Great buzz.
JOEL THOMAS HYNES on Hold Fast
Michael, 14, parents killed by a drunk driver, his whole existence turned upside down. Very involved in small town NL lifestyle — rabbits, fishing, cutting wood, freedom to roam. Throughout the book Michael is ensnared in that desperate grey zone between childhood and young adulthood, and probably would have experienced this at a much more manageable pace had it not been for the sudden tragedy he suffers. Michael is a very honest, willing, upright, if a little innocent, young man who simply cannot stomach bullshit in any form, and it’s these character traits in turn that make Hold Fast the ultimate townie-versus-bayman story. As he’s uprooted from his small town lifestyle and thrust into the seeming soulless squalor of “big city” life (big city in this case being the fictional town of St. Alberts, which if you pay close attention to the geography in the book can only mean a larger scale version of Corner Brook), he’s in for quite a culture shock. Ridiculed and patronized for his small town colloquialisms and mannerisms, pigeonholed by his accent, those qualities that a young buck from the bay might take for granted or even feel proud of are suddenly used against him to make his life a bit of extra hell. But at the same time Michael possesses a “street smart”, fend-for-yourself personality that offers him an advantage that even he is unaware of. His rural upbringing makes him older than his years in many ways, and he’s feared because of it. But at the same time, given his new surroundings, Michael feels all too well the sting of the sudden pointlessness of his once valuable skill set — the proper way to sharpen a blade, gut a fish, use a chainsaw, fix an engine, navigate the woods, build a fire — skills that once made him an equal among men twice his age and made him a valuable member of his household, are now cause for much dissent and divvy up a feeling in Michael almost akin to shame. Maybe on a grander scale Hold Fast can be said to be a closer-to-home version of the many social obstacles out-migrating NLers experience when they hit the mainland, unhinged from everything they’ve ever known and loved. But what gives Michael the edge is his unfaltering loyalty to his roots and his bloodline, so even though he might second guess at times, even though he might make half-hearted attempts to tow the line at different points in the story, he never strays far from who he is at his core, and eventually takes drastic measures to ascertain and maintain his right to be who he is. There’s a lesson in there for a lot of us.
RUTH LAWRENCE on February
On how they didn’t say goodbye, middle pg 9, the three paragraphs that follow. “They chopped wood or they shovelled.”
On the beginnings of labour, pg 37-38. “I can’t,” she said.
On the dog, pg 114-120 “Is this what a life is?”
On the night it happened, pg 157 “Here’s the funny thing.”
On what he said, pg 290-293 “Tell Helen; tell Helen.”
Actually, these lines above, all from Helen or her imagination, tell us a lot about her
CHAD PELLEY on Come, Thou Tortoise
Right, Audrey Flowers. I’ve been going on and on about Jessica’s writing till now, but that’s led to a good set up for this question. Basically, you filter Jessica Grant’s wit and wordsmithery through her main character, Audrey Flowers, and you end up with the most endearing and strikingly original character to ever grace a Canadian novel. Just Google the book and read the comments in virtually any article on Come, Thou Tortoise: people were mesmerized by this character. I’ve really never seen readers so taken by character. A story, yes, a book, yes, but never a character. Throughout 2010, readers everywhere – on Facebook, in emails – were quoting Audrey’s signature sentences “I would not say no to a [X]” or “Rule Number one about [X]” like Audrey was a movie character out of a blockbuster comedy. She is, and thinks, and acts like no other character has, and that made her far more fascinating to read than other household-name characters, like Romeo and Juliet (so what they fell in love, who hasn’t?) or Holden Caulfield (who reminded me of myself and 1000 people like me, instead of flooring me with his uniqueness of thought and action), etc.
Her perception of the world and reaction to it is delightfully offkilter, and she describes the world in a consistently bright way, and she’ll even make up her own language to do it. She describes Sylvester Stallone as “bullety.” No one has ever used that adjective before, “bullety,” but it’s perfect, right? It’s no wonder Michael Winter, a CanLit icon known for his own attention to detail, endorsed this novel with a plea, “Please — I beg you dear reader — read Jessica Grant.”
And by the way, Hynes, her sidekick is more of a literate hygienic tortoise than a dirty turtle. I knew I was putting my name on the line defending a book that gives the mic to a tortoise from time to time, but it’s actually a clever narrative device. Winnifred recaps elements of Audrey’s past in a way that would have been distracting, dull, and, biased if Audrey had of done it herself, via flashback, etc. Even the straight-laced Globe and Mail said, “Audrey’s brilliant. She’s hilarious. I could read about her all day. Same goes for the tortoise.”