March 31, 2005 12:04:35 PM
I've been reflecting a lot recently on how to make characters stand out. My favorite books have vivid characters. This may seem like an obvious statement, but the truth is that a good book may not actually have vivid characters. Here's an example: The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. It's a gripping story, but most of the characters don't stand out that much. Or how about 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke? No one would argue that this isn't a classic novel, but its humans take a decided back seat to the plot (and to Hal the computer for that matter).
For the most part, though, strong characters can elevate an otherwise weak story and propel an excellent story into the sublime. I really enjoy Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels. Stephanie, her Grandma Mazur, Joe Morelli, Ranger, Lulu and all the rest are the kind of characters you can happily follow into whatever mess they get themselves into. And the books are laugh-out-loud funny. (They're also more than a little risque.) But the truth is the plots mostly exist as a vehicle for Stephanie's mishaps and the inevitable blown-up car.
I think the ideal of strong characterization and strong story come together in The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin, and in To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Both of these books tell good stories, though in different ways, and both books have distinctive, complex characters. In LeGuin's book, the two main characters alternate in the narration, but it's not confusing because each comes from a different perspective. This is a masterful novel on all levels: she built a wonderfully complete society, her characters are vivid and interesting, the book makes you think about a lot of things, and it's a rousing good story. It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1969 or 1970.
Harper Lee tells her story differently; we see the events through the eyes of a little girl. The story seems to take its time, but from the opening lines, the events all move toward the conclusion. I've always loved the descriptions of the town and its inhabitants. Scout's is a distinctive voice and I love to hear it over and over. And of course, it won the Pulitzer Prize, I think in 1960.
Now, if only I could bring my characters to life the way my literary heroes have. I'll reflect more on this another day.