A couple of weeks ago, I started down a long, windy road of discussion about what makes a book a good book. If you want to check that out, it’s right here: Grab ’em by the hair and don’t let go!
As promised, today I’m thinking about characters. Please, keep in mind that I’m not an expert (nor do I play one on TV). I’m just a writer trying to figure out how to be a better writer. If you’re looking for some thoughtful and insightful commentary about character building, you should totally check out R.G. Emanuelle’s blog post The Soul of a character. R.G. is super smart, and so she makes super-smart observations. Unlike me, she is qualified to break it down like a boss.
Still, super smart or not, I know what I like. For example, I have mad respect for Charles Dickens because he is super quotable and managed to earn a living as a writer. Not only that, but his work has made a lasting impression on college campuses all over the place via every Freshman lit class ever.
The one thing Dickens lacked? The ability (or perhaps the insight) to create a believable, three-dimensional, living and breathing female character. Are there women in his novels? Sure. Are they flat as a piece of cardboard. Absolutely.
I’m not sure what horrifies me more, that Dickens might have seen women as two-dimensional imitations of real human beings, or the possibility that Dickens had perfect insight and women of his era really were that dependent upon the men in their lives, first their fathers and then their husbands, to think for them.
Knowing what I know about women, I’m going with the first option. I leave room for the possibility that women let men think they were thinking for them, when in fact the women were running the world via a kind word and fluttering eyelashes. Yeah, that’s what I’m going with.
So, that’s what I don’t like. I want my characters meaty and full figured, with depth and range of emotion that isn’t always pretty, but still makes the think. I want characters who leave me breathless and haunt me for the rest of my life.
I grew up in the middle-of-nowhere Idaho. I rode the bus several miles to school each morning and got free lunch because we were so poor. Our house was far out in the country, a thrown-together shack with a curtain where the bathroom door should have been. My mom worked hard and looked exhausted all the time. She yelled and spanked, sometimes with my dad’s leather belt, but she never cussed and I don’t remember her ever crying, even when my dad was killed.
She was strong and smart and wanted me to grow up to be strong and smart just like her. No matter how tired she was, or how much she worked, she always, always found time to take me to the library. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but we were even farther from the nearest town than we were from the elementary school (West Canyon Elementary – Go, Falcons!).
The library, that’s where I met Ponyboy, Soda Pop, and their older brother Darryl. When S.E. Hinton was fifteen and a Sophomore in high school, she started writing her award-winning, young-adult novel, The Outsiders. She did the bulk of the writing her Junior year, the same year she nearly failed her creative writing course at school.
What did a poor girl from rural Idaho share in common with a greasy-haired orphan from the wrong side of the tracks in Oklahoma City? As it turned out, nothing and yet everything.
In Ponyboy, I found a companion spirit, an idealist who longed for everything to change, yet was realistic enough to accept things as they were. I wanted to sit with him in dark movie theaters when nobody in his family would. I wanted to chase away the rich kids who jumped him. And I wanted to protect him and his best friend Johnny as they hid in that church wishing there was a way to take it all back.
I wanted to know him. Hell, some days I wanted to be him. To this day, I’ve never forgotten him.
What makes The Outsiders, and Ponyboy, so special? I can tell you that it wasn’t a matter of mechanics. Hinton wrote the book in first-person, present tense, my least favorite style to read (Although, I didn’t know that back then, when I read the book for the first time.). And the writing is a little loose, a little wild. But maybe that was intentional given the subject matter.
Still, Hinton infused a soul into Ponyboy. She somehow made this scared and shaking little boy trying to be a man, brave enough to see himself and his friends with frank clarity and honesty. Every sentence has a bit of insight woven into it, sometimes big, sometimes small. And, as you’re reading, you realize that Ponyboy is more real, more alive, than the cousin you’ve played with every weekend of your entire life.
If you’ve never spent time hangin’ with Ponyboy and the rest of The Outsiders, it’s time to remedy that. Amazon has a sample from The Outsiders HERE. Take a moment to introduce yourself, then come back and tell me what you think about Hinton’s simple, yet exquisitely beautiful, character building. And, for good measure, share your thoughts on what goes into creating a memorable character.