15 January 2012

readability: part two

It only takes one good character ...

Sometimes it's the villain (or "villain") who "makes" the book ...
One thing I'm beginning to find as I work through this question of "readability" hinges on the idea of character "likability." I tend to really enjoy a book that has a likable, or at least "relatable" main character. But I've also begun to realize that it's often the secondary characters--the hero's best friend, a parent, an older or younger sibling, a peculiar neighbor, a compelling villain--who makes or breaks the book. I've always been somewhat drawn to the villain, in particular ... What drew them--or trapped them--in a life of evil deeds and sinister intentions? Where did they come from? What are their motives? Are they evil for the sake of evil, or because the world in some small or major part made them "the bad guy." Think of books like Wicked or Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, or the children's book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, in which the traditional villain is given great sympathy and consideration, and becomes something of a hero. Think of how we often yearn for the villain to just stop, the moments in the book or series when we see that glimmer of goodness--Draco Malfoy's inability or unwillingness to kill Dumbledore or Harry, for instance, or the sad and whimpering figure of Grima Wormtongue realizing that he's been used--in which we think that maybe, just maybe, that glimmer bears the shade of hope for that character as well. Was I the only one who found Harry Potter a bit more intriguing of a character when he began wrestling with the idea that he was unnervingly similar to his archenemy?

... Sometimes the secondary character "saves" the narrator ...
It's certainly not only the compelling villain who makes a book readable. But there's something about those compelling secondary characters who help you escape the main character that contributes something significant. As I'm thinking about series like The Hunger Games and Twilight, and even a book like Jane Eyre, I find myself trying to put together the moments that kept driving me forward in a narrative when the narrator was infuriating, and it usually involves some lovable secondary character. I'm at the point in the third book of the Hunger Games trilogy that I only care about Katniss's survival because I care about characters like Gabe and Peeta. It's oddly reminiscent of the times I've read Jane Eyre, wanting nothing more than to reach through the pages and shake Jane (or worse), but trying to see her more graciously because Rochester loved her and I loved Rochester. Do these "secondary" characters (I'd argue they're in many ways more important, at least to me, than the main character narrator) help to "save" the main characters?

... And there's always a lot of weight on the narrator's "voice"
Of course, there's also the issue of the narrator her- or himself. Sometimes the narrator is just as compelling as the characters whose lives they narrate; think Nick Carraway narrating The Great Gatsby. But oftentimes I find myself wishing the author had just made the novel a third-person omniscient work, rather than a first-person narrator. It might have saved characters like Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen from themselves. But then there are also those multiple narrator books like The Help ... Now there's a book that caused me some trouble. In a case like The Help it can sometimes be hard to know who to root for. Particularly when you have a somewhat self-deprecating narrator like Skeeter, a sometimes blindly judgmental narrator like Minny, and a strong but often stereotypical narrator like Aibileen. Then again, I made it through that book with nary a peep of dissension or disinterest. I could envision just about everything and everyone in the book.

Envision ... There's something else. The ability to see what the narrator--whether first or third person--wants and needs you to see. Or is it something more than that? I think it is ... but I'll save that for later!

... To be continued.

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