Tag: characters

Readers in Books

anne readingRecently I just finished a book called Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys. It’s not terrible but it’s not great either.  One of the things that annoyed me about it was the lazy way it treated potentially interesting characters.

The book is set in a New Orleans brothel in the 1950s and focuses on a little girl named Josie as she grows up in this unusual environment.  Every cliche about a hooker with a heart of gold, idiotic but cruel mafia types, police officers who turn a blind eye are brought out and put on display.  The story has a very predictable love triangle and Madame who is tough talking Southern lady we’ve read in a thousand other books.

But I don’t want to talk about those characters because what got me thinking is how Sepetys makes Josie a reader. She even works and lives at a bookstore. It felt like a really lazy way of ascribing a whole bunch of qualities to the character without really developing it.  Just make her a reader and that will mean she is precocious, smart, thoughtful, introspective, a dreamer etc.

matilda readingThen I realized how often this is done with lots of different books, books I love. Usually combined with writing an author can make a character a reader and it immediately associates them with a whole list of attributes and traits. I find this to be particularly true with female characters. Has there ever been a female reader in a book that was silly and superficial?

jo readingI’m sure this is partly because authors are readers and so they like to ascribe lots of positive qualities to the character they most embody. It also saves the author from having to create complex characters in every story.

Sometimes the plot doesn’t need a complex character, or all she needs to be is the type of bold thinker associated with the trope.  There is nothing wrong with using cliches in your story (within reason) if it moves the story.  Certainly many books have gotten mired in unique characters and the plot has suffered.

reader jane austenJane Austen actually plays with the lazy assumptions of readers in Pride and Prejudice. Miss Bingley see’s Lizzie reading and trying to pin her foe down as the very type of woman I’m talking about: the percocious reader instead of the lady:

“Do you prefer reading to cards?” said he; “that is rather singular.”

“Miss Eliza Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, “despises cards. She is a great reader, and has no pleasure in anything else.”

“I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,” cried Elizabeth; “I am NOT a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.”

Why is this so rare? Why not have a person who just enjoys reading on occasion? Or why not have a reader who also likes sports or playing cards?  Why do 99% of readers have to be the same?

10thingsBut it just made me think is the brilliant reader trope a thing because that’s actually the way readers are or is it a lazy way to continue a story and create a likable heroine? I feel like I know lots of different kind of readers but perhaps the one’s that self-identify as a ‘reader’ are more similar.  For example, my father likes to read a particular type of book but I don’t think he would list that as his first character attribute.

sound of musicThink about in Sound of Music. When Brigitta comes into roll call reading a book as a viewer you immediately assume tons about her character.  What do you guys think about that?  Is it lazy storytelling, necessary to quickly identify people or actually true to life?

simpsonsPerhaps it doesn’t really matter but I do wonder if it could ostracize certain people from reading because they don’t fit the stereotype of a ‘reader’. What if you are like Lizzie and take pleasure in many things?  What’s wrong with that? Books are so diverse that creating such a narrow definition of what a reader looks like could be discouraging for people who don’t want to be branded with that label or persona?

book theifI think this is particularly true for boys who may want the persona of being a comic book reader but not the more feminine quality of reading novels (although why that is a gender identifier I will never understand).

Maybe I’m overthinking it but I just know I get bored when I’ve seen a character a million times and know exactly what she is going to say, believe and do. Also some of the enlightened reader types are from my favorite books (Book Thief, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women etc) so it has kind of been done as good as you can do it. And those great books were developing their characters in other ways not using reading as a lazy writing crutch.

hermione

What do you guys think about readers in books and movies? Do you agree with me they can be pretty predictable or am I creating a pattern where none exists? What are some examples of more nuanced readers in books I may be overlooking?  Would love your feedback

Book Thief

book thief

I’ve mentioned several times on this blog how much I love The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.  I can confidently say it is the best book published in my lifetime.  I can’t think of anything that even comes close.  My favorite book is still North and South but this one is a very close second.

The reason why I wanted to profile it today is because my blogger friend over at Suey’s Books also loves this novel and is doing a read-along in September.  There will be insight posted daily with discussion questions, twitter chatting etc.  I will be participating and I thought some of you might enjoy it also http://sueysbooks.blogspot.com/2013/08/announcing-book-thief-read-along.html

The other news on the Book Thief front is the trailer for the upcoming movie came out.  In some ways I’m optimistic (I really felt it was an unfilmable book) but in other ways very skeptical (how can you not have death in the trailer!).  Those who’ve read it what do you think?

If you are one of the few people who haven’t read The Book Thief let me tell you why it is so spectacular.  It is set in WWII Nazi Germany but it is not a Holocaust book; although that certainly plays into the story.  That alone makes it unique.  Then it is narrated by death as a sarcastic, scary, biting, politically neutral force.  It is a brilliant choice as narrator not simply a gimmick.  Who else could be neutral about WWII?

Then you have a little girl, Liesel, who’s parents are communists so she and her brother are smuggled onto a train where the brother dies and Liesel stumbles upon her first book.  Unable to read she takes it anyway and shows it to her new foster parents The Hubermans.

Rosa and Hans Huberman are quite the couple.  Hans is all loving and sweetness; while Rosa is somewhat of a tyrant.  However, you know that she is helping this girl and a Jewish man named Max who hides in the basement so she can’t be all bad.  Later Liesel becomes friends with a little boy named Rudy who adores her and the mayor’s wife Ilsa who has a whole library for her to explore.

WWII unfolds for these characters with all kinds of moral challenges, sweet moments and tragedy.  You have to read it.  The thing that amazes me about The Book Thief is how many well developed characters there are.  Most books are lucky if you have two dynamic characters.  This book has at least 6 maybe more.  There are characters that only appear for a page or two and yet you see a whole story arc and feel for them.  It’s amazing.

Then the book has so much to say.  First, its a commentary on war and the baseness but also grandeur of human nature.  Death teaches the reader about all he has learned about mankind at his job, especially in the busy season of WWII.  A character like Rudy shows the innocent and loving side.  Rosa shows the complex but deeply human side.  Hans shows the brave side.  Everything around them shows the horrible side.

The Book Thief also has something to say about books and the power of words.  Liesel is a book thief but in a way aren’t we all.  We take the inner most thoughts of the author, absorb it and then make it our own.  In the book-within-a-book that Max writes for Liesel, The Word Shaker, we learn about a group of people who have the power to throw words at people. One particular girl climbs a tree and the fuhrer tries to chop it down but despite trying multiple axes he cannot cut the tree or destroy the word shaker.

(See why I think this movie is unfilmable).  Anyway, Zusak’s point is that words create evil and have the power to save humanity.  We should in the end all be book thieves like the word shaker. Maybe such tragedy shown in the book wouldn’t happen if we did.

I hope that isn’t any spoilers.  I tried.  Its such a great book.  I’ve read it 4 or 5 times and each time I have a full spectrum of emotions including weeping.  Not a small tear but actual flooding. And its a good kind of crying.  A crying where you have been truly moved, not manipulated. Second to last time I read it I was listening to it (a great audiobook btw) on a greyhound coming home from a swim in Vegas and at certain point I started to cry.  I couldn’t help myself.  I wonder what those bus riders thought of me!

Anyway, take this chance with Suey’s read along and read The Book Thief.  You won’t regret it.  I’m reading it again and I look forward to being dazzled all over again.  Happy Reading!

Please put in the comments what you think of the trailer.  Hopeful? Skeptical?

 

Creativity vs Convention

My brain is fried from entering accounting all day but I have something on my mind I wanted to explore.

Here it is-

I’ve always respected refreshing, unique stories.  Not necessarily fantasy but just out of the ordinary enough to make me think.  That’s why I loved A Girl Named Zippy and The Book Thief.  That’s why I like Juno, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Inception etc.

Then why I am writing such a conventional story? And worse off its my life and probably the most dramatic thing that’s ever happened to me. Quitting my job…What does that say about my life? Kind of depressing when you think about it. Sigh…

But I also love convention.  I love a good Hallmark movie, a Sophie Kinsella book, Anne of Green Gables, sitcoms, The Help, Edenbrooke, reality tv, and a good rom com.  Sometimes I wonder if that means I’m not as much of an intellectual as I like to pretend? This worries me.

Do any of you struggle with these types of feelings?

The one thing I know I care about regardless of creativity or convention is strong characters.  A Nora Ephron movie may seem conventional to most but I love her characters and snappy dialogue.  Perhaps why I tend to not like fantasy/dystopian novels is they tend to get so caught up in setting and atmosphere that the characters and dialogue get lost.  Like a George Lucas movie, all fluff and no heart.

So, how do I make this character one I would want to read despite convention?  That seems easy enough given the character is ME but I don’t know about that? What makes my story unique? I’m not begging for compliments here just exploring.  Having never tried I am SURE it will be harder than I can imagine.  Its perhaps a little tricky as well to create the character I was then and not the person I am now.  The change will not feel real if I already know all the answers.

I love in You’ve Got Mail how Meg Ryan’s character deals with losing her store and how it makes her this different person.  That’s the kind of thing I’d like to tap into when sharing my story but keep it light like that movie.  I know that’s a high standard but you have to keep something in mind for tone.

Maybe I will be surprised at how interesting I am? You never know it could be easier to capture this story than I think.  I’ve just had that gut feeling that this is important for me to write for some reason.  It’s just getting that character right.

Convention vs creativity?

Hmmmm.  What do you all think?

LOL