Monday, November 23, 2009


I’ve been thinking a lot about characters. What makes me want to take their journey with them? While there are different variables to what makes a good novel, it always comes back to the characters. The greatest plot and most driven action only work if the characters are fully formed. Okay, that’s not exactly true. You can rest a lot on good writing and a fantastic hook – but without that spark of life in the character, you might have a publishable book, but not a great one. The thing I notice is that great characters can sometimes make up for failings elsewhere, but without them the novel will eventually fade from my memory. It becomes lost in between all the other ‘meh’ books I’ve read – not really pinpointing what was wrong but not special enough to love.

I doubt the authors are completely aware that they haven’t gone the distance with the character when it happens. Usually there are things, qualities, which put together on paper seem to make a really remarkable person. But there’s something missing from point A to point B. Something gets lost in the translation between what’s in the author’s head and what the reader gets.

Every great novel, or movie, or story that’s ever stuck with me in that life-changing, earth shaking way share a common denominator – I fall in love with the characters. And whenever I fall, it’s in the moments. You can count on spectacular writing (or movie making, or singing... insert artistic medium here). There are particulars, of story or plot or theme, that change and have some of this and a little of that. But there are always moments. I’ll give you a few examples, so you can see what I’m saying.

I love Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast. I was surprised how much I adored this book – and I’ve seen Stuart around the blog-o-sphere for a very long time, so I already knew he was brilliant. But I’m not a big thriller reader – here and there, but I don’t go out of my way to pick up thrillers or crime fiction. He got me in the moments. And against all odds, I couldn’t help but fall for Gerry Fegan – and believe me, if you haven’t read it, Fegan himself gives you ample reason to stay the hell away from him.

And I don’t want to mislead you – the writing was brilliant enough to keep me turning the pages, but it was in those moments that he hooked me. There were more than a few peppered through the book, but here’s the one that sticks most prevalent in my head:

Marie McKenna lay naked beside him. It was his bed, but it wasn’t. It was his house, but it wasn’t. Fegan was naked, too, and it shamed him. He went to cover himself.

“Don’t,” she said, moving his hand away.

“I’m not clean,” he said.

She hushed him, and moved in close. Her body was warm against his. She kissed him. Her mouth was soft, like summer air.

When he was free of her lips, he said, “It’s been so long. I don’t know what it feels like.”

“It feels like this,” she said, taking his hand and placing it on her breast.

Her skin was soft, her breast round and supple, with a hardness against his palm. Yes, that’s what it feels like. Smooth, warm...slick?

He looked down. His hand had smeared red on her body. She looked down, too, and he saw her mouth twist in disgust. He tried to wipe it away, but only made it worse, great crimson hand-prints across her breasts and stomach.

To be fair, this was a dream sequence, and picking it apart with the other scenes that really got me, it was the juxtaposition of who this character was on the outside, what the world saw of Gerry, and who he was inside. It was the hope, in this scene it was the hope, when so much else going on said quite plainly that the only thing coming was death, I couldn’t help but love a guy who still carried a glimmer of hope with him, even in the face of despair.

An all-time favorite of mine is Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Again, too many moments to pinpoint them all – and of course, his mastery of dialect has always enthralled me in a way that I can’t even express adequately. But there is one scene above all others that springs first to my mind whenever the book is mentioned.

Throughout the novel, Huck struggles with the fact that he’s helped Jim run away. Conventional views of the time tell him over and over again that this is a great sin, that Jim is property and he’s essentially stolen him from his owner, a woman who’s never done anything to deserve the theft. He gets to the point where he can’t even pray over it because, as he realizes, “You can’t pray a lie.” And he knows that he can’t ask for forgiveness when he has no intention of giving Jim over. So he writes a letter to Miss Watson, thinking that once he’s got it out, and can send it, he can go the “right” way:

...and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now: and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

The moment is obvious, how can you not love a kid who would go to hell, who literally believes he is damning his eternal soul, rather than turn over a friend?

When I started really picking apart these moments, I notice that for me they always let me inside the character. Sometimes they’re internal thoughts, sometimes actions, sometimes scenes between two characters, but they always let me inside... the same intimacy that makes you fall in love with a person.

What are your moments? I’d love to hear them, a passage from one of your favorite works, or one you’re proud of from your own fiction... Or if you’d like, a paraphrase from one of your favorite novels or movies... what makes your moments? Bonus points if you can make me melt.


jjdebenedictis said...

I think I love characters out of a combination of finding something about them I admire and finding something in them that I recognize in my own character.

I can love a character for having the same crazy foibles as me. I can also love them for being the sort of person I wish I was.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi JJ,

I agree with you. There are a lot of variables to the type of qualities that pull me in, but often it's something I can identify with, or something I wish (or hope) I had the strength to be.

I'm really more thinking about the HOW here - how a writer gets it across in the fiction. The ones that miss the mark for me don't necessarily lack in the characteristics they've given the people in their fiction. So I guess the question is how do you show it? How do you get it across without spoonfeeding the readers?

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Ok, here's a scene that brings Trin to life, for me, at least. It's something he never talked about, how his parents killed themselves in a suicide bombing.

“You do remember it. Father Troy said you didn’t. But when I saw you today, I realized.”

Trinidad said nothing. He let Castile hold his hand, fingers tight around the bullet on his palm.

“I think you should tell me,” Castile said. “I really want to know. I want to understand.”

“I don’t.”


Trinidad bit his lip and leaned his head against the table.

“Please, Trin.”

“We got in a fight and Israel was crying. Israel--he was just being a kid, you know? But he was always getting on my nerves. Dad was about as mad as I’ve ever seen him. He picked up Israel and he yelled at me and told me to--” he broke off as memory flared.

“Wait outside,” Castile whispered.

“Yeah.” Trinidad let the ammo belt rest on his thigh and he closed his eyes, tight, until he saw sparks. “He made me wait at the end of the parking lot under a tree. The market was one of those Indigo-run places, all locally grown things. The guy used to always give us candy, so I knew Israel was going to get some and I wasn’t. I was crying and upset. My dad had this bag over his shoulder. I didn’t even think about it. It was supposed to be for the things they bought.”

“That’s how he got the bomb in the door.”

Trinidad bit down on his upper lip, hard.


“Dad was carrying Israel and giving me that look and the door closed on them. Mom didn’t even say anything. She didn’t yell at us. She was looking at her list. She didn’t even glance back at me. But the terrorists in their cell testified later. She knew. She was in on the whole thing.”

Merry Monteleone said...


That's exactly what I'm talking about! The last paragraph just killed me, too, definitely bonus points there.