f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 3 of <i>Saint Maybe</i> – A Start on Characterization

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Friday, November 12, 2004

Day 3 of Saint Maybe – A Start on Characterization

Next week I’d like to start another “nuts & bolts” discussion by looking at characterization. It’s a topic some folks have already made a running head-start into here and I don’t know that I’m any better informed that they are about it, but I’ll make a few points and hopefully we can learn how best to bring our characters alive on the page.

(BTW: if you’re not part of the discussion board, take a moment and join. There’s some very nice dialogue going on there that goes well past just dumb internet chatting you see so many places. I’m all for dumb internet chatting on occasion but to have actual discourse seems like something to celebrate...and engage.)

Anyway, today we’re going to look a bit of characterization in Saint Maybe. This one stood out for me because it’s a topic I’d recently discussed with an editor in-house in regards to one of his projects—the dilemma of the unreflective character.

How, in other words, do you enter the narrative mind of a character who isn’t naturally reflective? Because there are people like that in the world. To write them off as poor potential characters seems, well, lazy. But they do present challenges.

Anne’s answer is to simply give her unreflective character the few pages of narration in the book. Doug Bedloe, the father (natch), is a man of his generation. Whether through nature or nurture he’s a quiet, solid man who doesn’t let himself get wrangled into the complications of the world. Here’s Doug “reflecting” on a night class he took to occupy himself:

“It turned out, though, that he didn’t have a knack for discussing things. You read a story; it’s good or it’s bad. What’s to discuss? The other people in the class, they could ramble on forever. Halfway through the course, he just stopped attending.”

The first thing to notice is that this IS interior narrative. Doug does have an inner monologue. Nobody, sans some kind of mental disorder, is without an inner dialogue. The key is simply that what tracks through Doug’s head is simply different from most people. He doesn’t dwell on the intricacies of personal interaction. He doesn’t stare into the depths of his own soul. He doesn’t spend much time lingering in the past, or looking too far ahead. He pays more attention to what’s happening NOW, around him.

It’s funny that I chose “unreflective” as a descriptor for these characters because, in fact, they make ideal mirrors. A perfectly flat mirror offers a wonderful reflection—sans judgment—on all that happens around them. This is a special kind of character whose “unedited” commentary allows readers to make their own assumptions about what’s happening. Nick Carraway, in the Great Gatsby, is a “witness narrator”, however he’s full of judgments. Forrest Gump, on the other hand, simply passes on information as it comes to him. Same with child narrators, often, as they don’t fully understand what they see. (Think of Scout’s reflections in To Kill a Mockingbird.)

Doug makes a fine narrator for one section, but it would have greatly changed the book to have him as the only narrator. And that’s the problem my colleague ran into with a recent novel. This was a single narrator book told from the perspective of a taciturn and unreflective character. The overwhelming sense a person had in reading it was of distance. You felt blocked off from knowing the main character. That can be a powerful effect…but it doesn’t lead to a sympathetic character. And it’s hard to lead readers through a book without a sympathetic hero.

Tyler avoids that issue. She merely sets Doug up as a foil, a placid center, for the rest of the characters. I don’t think she saw much more hope for him in terms of his narrating through the complications of the family. Even Doug himself admits it.

“‘We’ve had such extraordinary troubles,” Bee [his wife] said, ‘and somehow they’ve turned us ordinary. That’s what’s so hard to figure. We’re not a special family anymore.’

‘Why, sweetie, of course we’re special,’ he said.’

‘We’ve turned uncertain. We’ve turned into worriers.’

‘Bee, sweetie.’

“Isn’t it amazing?’

It was astounding, if he thought about it. But he was careful not to.”


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One unconnected question. How do you feel about named chapters? I’ve never been a fan of them. Anne has named hers and they bother me mildly. Any input?