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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

From flat to fab (or at least believable): The Word Nerd weighs in on characterizations


A. C’s previous posts on characterization introduced excellent ideas and advice on creating characters by making them underdogs, placing them in jeopardy, and by giving them vulnerabilities and conflicts to resolve, either within themselves, between themselves and others, or between themselves and their environment. I had a few thoughts on this (of course).

Characters are created with the following in mind:
     actions
     speech
     thoughts
     other characters’ perceptions of them
     appearance --but with a million caveats.  I shouldn’t have to tell you what they are, right?

There are many stellar characterizations in literature that I could hold up as examples, but I chose Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird.  Rather than give us a running internal monologue from Atticus’s point of view, the story is told from the point of view of Atticus’s daughter Scout.  However, thanks to Lee’s use of dialogue and other people’s perceptions, we get a fairly thorough picture of Atticus as a lawyer, a legislator, a father, a friend, a brother, and as a crusader for human rights.  He seems nearly perfect in all respects--patient, tolerant, brave, unselfish, intelligent, loving--the moral center of the book. However, the seemingly mild-mannered man who appears to fit into segregated Southern society like a hand into a glove is actually a boat-rocker and a progressive thinker. Atticus’s job, his reputation, and even his family are placed in jeopardy when this white attorney from a small Alabama town decides to take the case of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape by a white woman. His children are taunted in school and the case is discussed at dinner tables all over town. Atticus is quixotically and stubbornly determined to wake up the citizens of his town and make them rethink their ideas about not only race, but also about their own humanity and what that might mean.

We empathize with the middle-aged widower and single parent who never remarried after his wife died. He never mentions her in the book. Our narrator was only two when her mother died of a sudden heart attack. She only knows about her from the stories her older brother Jem tells her and from the vitriolic comments flung at her from one of the neighbors, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, on how the overall-clad tomboy was a disgrace to her mother’s memory. Romantic-minded souls are left to infer that losing his wife was so painful that Atticus cannot bear to speak of her. Cynics might say that perhaps the marriage wasn’t a happy one and that he’s sparing his children the details. Our modern sensibilities question Atticus’s motives for not talking with his children about their mother. While this may not be considered a “flaw,” it creates tension for the reader and depth--even a little mystery-- for the character.

Atticus Finch cannot conceive of the idea that such an evil human as Robert Ewell can exist, despite the unsavory revelations made about Bob Ewell during Mayella Ewell’s testimony on the stand at Tom Robinson’s trial. Atticus is certain that Ewell had gotten his anger out of his system the day after the trial when Ewell spat on him and threatened him; and that since “there’s not much chance to be furtive in Maycomb,” it’s not likely Ewell will try anything else. Until a moonless Hallowe’en night when Ewell follows the children home from a party at the school and attacks them  in the schoolyard.  Scout and Jem might have met a violent, senseless death that night. Instead of infusing Atticus with a more obvious weakness such as hubris or a quick temper, Lee, in a stroke of brilliance, makes idealism Atticus’s “flaw.” He clings to the belief that all humans are basically decent, and this extreme hope and trust in humanity nearly costs him his children.

Lee leaves it up to the reader to decide whether Atticus’s idealism is admirable or foolish. Many lively classroom discussions have resulted from the information Lee doesn’t give us. A good writer is able to create a layered, complex character who is, by turns, admirable and frustrating. 

Up next:  The flawed, tragic hero.