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Sunday, June 22, 2008

What makes a good character?

An academic definition of  a good book would normally go like this:  The characteristics of a good book are solid characters, believable plots and subplots that help the story move along.  I agree with this definition, but with a little twist.   The voice of the author has to ring true for the reader.  It  has to be authentic.  These are the stories that last a lifetime and beyond.    For this reason, I truly believe that only a few titles now will become classics for the next generation.  For example,  Tale of Two Cities by Dickens.  This is a classic for all ages because it can still reach out to the reader's today as having an authentic voice.  The reader can literally feel themselves going back in time to the French Revolution.  The same can be true of Frodo and his world.  Every person who has ever read Lord of the Rings, knows of Frodo's battle and his world.  They walk with him and at times feels the enormous weight of responsibility that plaques Frodo from the beginning to the end of the tale.  
The discussion to what will be a classic in the future can go on and on.  Everyone has a favorite.  Will Harry Potter live forever?  Probably,  but not because it was a literary stroke of genius on Rowling's part.  It is more likely that the kids who loved it today will become parents and recommend the books to their children as way of sharing something of their childhood. Harry Potter, does not have the qualities of a character that will last a lifetime and beyond.  Quite frankly, I think the movie versions of the saga has ruined the opportunity for the character to become the character of the ages.    Rowlings sold out to commercialism in a huge way and it effected, I believe the outcome of the story.  But that is a debate for another time, another place 
Are there any books or characters that would stand the test of time? Before answering that,  what makes a character stand out for a lifetime.  First,  the voice of the characters still echos even after the book has been closed.  Need an example?  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen when in chapter six the observation has been made that, "A lady's imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment."  Elizabeth's voice is very clear as she shares her observations about her surroundings.  These are the rare moments that the reader nods their head in agreement.  It has a striking ring of truth and they share the same feelings with the character.   The voice is so clear, that even after the book has been put down, the reader still can hear it in their mind.  Their thoughtful voices are true for not only their generation, but for ours as well.  Second,  the character does not  have to be likable, but they must have the quality of having flesh and bones, meaning you can imagine meeting them down at the local pub,  or in the library or in school.   Another example of this can be found, in Penny From Heaven by Jennifer Holm.  This is a touching book about Penny growing up in 1953 and her delightful family.  The reader likes Penny, they are rooting for her and she reminds them of the girl next door.  They've met her before and they want to see her again.  On the opposite coin, there is Artemis Fowl, who is a genius but not quite likable because he manipulates people to get what he wants.  However, readers stick with him because they want to see what he is going to do next.   He may be selfish, self serving and perhaps a little, evil, but there is a little piece of the reader who thinks, I wish I could get away with half the things he does.   Last but not least,  the character has a cause worth reading about.  Whether it is the hypocrisy of social classes,  adjusting to a mother getting remarried or a plot to become the ring leader of a crime gang, it is worth giving up precious time to go along with the characters on their journey.  
Who would I pick as out of modern day literary heroes to live forever?  Timeless classics, as they have been called?  You will have to get the answer in my next blog.  In the mean time, think of  the characters you would put on your list.  See if they  match mine.  

Till next time... happy reading. 
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