reading books

Being or Knowing: Characters and Readers

Reading an interesting post recently on the estimable Story Ape’s blog got me thinking about the relationship between fictitious characters and readers — main characters, known in some circles as “protagonists.”

Some characters are primarily vehicles by which a reader may experience the events of a story. The character is a type — an amateur sleuth, a woman seeking romance, a young person on a perilous quest. Their physical characteristics and personalities may be specified, but they’re actually elaborate costumes. Readers climb in and they’re there — solving the mystery, finding romance, or surviving the perils of the quest.

In other works of fiction, characters are equipped with complex personalities and backgrounds. Their needs and conflicts are not immediately evident. The reader must get to know them in order to discern their issues. It’s quite possible readers may not be able to identify with these characters; they may not even like them, but if the author has done the job right, the reader will find the character and his or her situation interesting enough to keep reading the book.

The “wearable” character is generally associated with plot-driven genre fiction; the “get to know” protagonist is more often typical of character-driven literary fiction. Readers have different expectations for these character types; getting acquainted with the character before you know what might happen to them requires some tolerance for uncertainty on the reader’s part. Writers of literary fiction must make their stories sufficiently alluring to keep readers hanging out with their characters.

I’m fairly sure authors don’t decide, as they begin writing a story or novel, which of these types of characters they will create for it. They usually do know whether they’re writing genre fiction or literary fiction. Characters evolve accordingly.

It doesn’t have to be an either/or. Really well-written works feature complex characters and compelling plots. Readers decide unconsciously whether to become a character and ride their rollercoaster, or to observe and ponder the character’s dilemmas.

The four novels of my Herbert West Series have five different narrators — six, actually, because Herbert West is quite a different person from Francis Dexter. Each of these people has his or her own style: Charles Milburn, diffident librarian; Andre Boudreau, amnesiac Acadian; Margaret Bellgarde, widow of the Great War; Herbert West, amoral scientist, who becomes Francis Dexter, wounded healer; Alma Halsey, disaffected journalist. And The Nexus, one of the short story supplements to the series, is narrated by eccentric professor and sometime occultist Professor Augustus Quarrington.

I’m thinking all these different narrators may be somewhat disconcerting for readers who expect more uniformity among books within a series. And I’m sure not all readers have found it easy to slip into these characters and share their lives. Over the course of the series, however, they have a good selection from which to choose.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

 

The books include elements of different genres and of literary fiction. Some readers may find the fit a little uncomfortable. I am biased, of course, but I can honestly say no one who spends time with my characters will be harmed by the experience, and some may be entertained.

Featured image created with Canva using free pictures from Unsplash and Pixabay.

 

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Books to Reread

A book read once only may be considered disposable. A book intentionally read several times, especially with the endless supply of new books available, is a treasure, an alternate home for the reader’s brain. Rereading a book is like going to visit an old friend; you know what to expect and look forward to it.

Books that lend themselves to rereading tend to be on the long side and somewhat complex, with memorable, well-developed characters. The quality of the writing must be good, but does not necessarily have to be great. Above all, there must be something mysterious or unresolved that draws the reader back to the book. It may be only a desire to experience the story all over again, having possibly forgotten how it ends, or at least the steps by which the end is achieved. The combination of remembering just enough but not quite all recharges a book with interest and intrigue.

A sure sign of a good candidate for rereading is that you want to own a copy.

I have to admit that I do a lot of rereading. Combine that with my own writing (including this blog), a full time job and the demands of the garden may explain why I don’t read many new books, with the exception of the works in progress of fellow writers. In my work as a cataloguer I am surrounded by new books, so am generally aware of what’s hot and honoured, but I don’t always rush to read it.

Anyway, here are a few (a very few) of my favourite rereads:

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I prefer it to War and Peace, incidentally, which I find overly burdened with History. Anna Karenina may in fact be the perfect novel — full of realistic characters and situations that a reader of our time can recognize and identify with. The central character’s story is a tragic one, but it is surrounded by many other stories that save it from becoming cheap melodrama. This is a big, rich, slice of life that I am eager to partake of every few years.

Titus Groan and Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. These two books are set in a world so weird — grotesque, even — and full of imaginative detail, that the characters almost don’t matter. It’s Gormenghast itself that is the main “character,” but in fact the primary players — Fuchsia, Dr. Prunesquallor, Steerpike, the Countess, Keda and the Professors and others — are also finely drawn and unforgettable. The interesting thing to me is that Titus himself is invisible in the first book (because he is still an infant at its end) and somewhat annoying and irrelevant in the second one. While I find Gormenghast, his home and heritage, totally fascinating, all he can think of is escaping it forever. Once he does — in a third book, Titus Alone — I lose interest. After several false starts, I forced myself to read Titus Alone, but do not plan to read it again, ever.

The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams. I hesitated a bit before including this one, because it isn’t a “classic,” by any means. But the fact is that I have read it many times, and still do not think I quite understand the narrator’s motivations. All right, he marries a woman whose past he knows nothing about, because he has fallen in love (and lust) with her. The early days of their marriage are a paradise of domestic bliss and scorching sex, and the new wife proves to be a catalyst for success in the narrator’s fine ceramics business. But her past catches up with her; her husband discovers that she has done a terrible deed, and… Well, I’m not sure. That’s why I reread this one, thinking that maybe this time I’ll figure it all out.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. Here I mean a collection of all the original Sherlock Holmes stories. Read in one huge batch, they are wonderfully escapist. There are so many stories, involving so many details impossible to remember from one reading session to the next. A perfect reread, especially when Real Life is in a tiresome phase.

The Lost Oasis by Patrick Roscoe. This may be a kind of lost book, actually, because I’m not sure that it’s still in print. But it’s a perfect example of a story that seems to be moving toward one of a limited number of outcomes, none of which happens. I’m not actually sure what happens at the end. One thing I am sure of, is that the main character is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Imagine being toured around Europe and North Africa by someone that you find less and less trustworthy the more you listen to his stories about his troubled family and his attempts to reconnect with his missing brother and father. The trouble is that by the time you decide to call it quits, you’re in the Western Sahara and you haven’t got a clue.

Finally, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, all by J.R.R. Tolkien. These are among my most reliable rereads. Every couple of years, I pick up one of them, and when I’ve finished it I simply must go on to read the others. Yes, I know there are thousands (maybe zillions) of epic fantasies out there, but this is still one of the best. What gives it depth and richness is that Tolkien’s field was languages, and the stories grew out of that. Read in the order I give here, the tales grow darker. The Hobbit may be a simple story for children, but The Silmarillion, which is in effect the ancient history of Tolkien’s created world, has elements that bring to mind the bloodiest of Northern legends and seem to call for someone like Wagner to turn them into music dramas.

Does one ever tire of rereading specific books? Yes. Old favourites from long ago now languish on my shelves. It seems that once part of the formula breaks down, the intrigue is gone. Once the reader figures out the mystery, or remembers all the details, or (more likely) simply doesn’t care about it any more, the book remains closed forever.