What makes a character real?

I share a love for Jan Karon's novels with my mother. We can talk about the characters as if they were real, asking each other why this and how that, and generally driving the male members of our family crazy. But what makes these characters seem so real to us? Perhaps it's the fact that we've read about them so often, seen them grow up or grow old through so many books, enjoyed their conversations with each other and remembered pithy quotes... But how does that apply to other books where the characters feel like friends (or neighbors, or enemies)? While Mum reads other well-remembered volumes, I've been reading books I've never read before, and finding myself enthralled by characters who feel just as real as the inhabitants of Mitford, if not more so. I hope the characters in my own novels have the same sense of reality. But perhaps I'll never know if I can't work out how authors create it in their own books.

I'm thinking the protagonist in a memoir should seem real shouldn't s/he? Not a friend perhaps, but at the very least someone who cornered you over coffee perhaps in the store. And one of my recent reads was a memoir. Another was first-person fiction and another firmly anchored in a character's head. Both are told with sometimes disturbing clarity and honest confusion--stories I could relate to in places, less so in other places. Perhaps it's a point of contact with the protagonist that makes her real, but isn't she equally real to people with no such connection?

The third-person protagonist who makes mistakes you wish you could rescue him from... then the world moves on and his mistakes become a present imperfect reality and you want... and you feel like you know him though of course, you never would...? How does he become real?

The historical; the futuristic... more?

Some characters feel like they belong on TV and I'm comfortable to watch/read, enjoy the tale and forget it afterward. But others stay in the mind and memory. Long introspection might turn their fiction into a text book, but some internal thoughts just draw the reader in. Dialog can feel like you wish you weren't there, or else it makes you long to talk some more. Locale's can enthrall with fascinating scenery and events. But there must be something more.

I guess they call it depth; depth of character; depth of characterization; depth of reader involvement perhaps. Some characters have it; some novels draw you in; and some just entertain.

My latest Jan Karon expedition with Mum was the novel, To Be Where You Are. It's set in the familiar streets of Mitford, and the reader is happy to be there, even if some of the characters start wondering if they couldn't make more of life by being somewhere else. The author weaves several stories together in the novel. Situations and resolutions reveal and heal wounds. And the reading is fun. Enjoy with some well-balanced smooth three-star coffee.

First Person Female by Maria Flook is a complex literary memoir. Oddly, for me at least, the author doesn't feel any more real than the characters in Mitford. But perhaps the point is I'd never in real life meet anyone like Ms Flook; we'd never frequent the same places; and we'd probably instantly dislike each other without stopping to talk. Part of the strength of this memoir though, is how it pulls the reader in through short essays. If you're pushed away by one part of the tale you'll surely be drawn in by another. And a character whose adult life is grafted onto a wounded childhood might find, in wounded motherhood, the healing of the graft. Read this dark tale with some dark five-star coffee.

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel is dark as well. It seems to be in all the stores, so I was delighted to get a free copy. The story's told in first person by a very convincing protagonist. Nicely avoiding excessive introspection, the author weaves past and present with well-timed breaks, each section feeding naturally into the next. It's a story of darkly broken family relationships, but it's deeper than most, allowing air for wounded truths to breathe. Read this one with some elegant complex four-star coffee.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer tells a story of a wounded boy who loses his father on 9/11. Humor, pathos, mystery, history, angst and delight all combine in a tale with a protagonist who doesn't quite seem real, but is so genuine you have to follow through every curious path--does having to follow him mean he is real after all? Certainly he and the people he interacts with become hauntingly convincing as the tale progresses. It's a great read, best enjoyed with some seriously elegant four-star coffee.

Moving from New York and Europe to Brooklyn and Ireland, Brooklyn by Colm Tiobin is just as good in book form as in the movie, and just as vividly real to me, an immigrant. The story of a girl who travels to the States to start a new life with a new job...who returns to her home and finds it's unchanged, yet not home... who struggles to decide where she fits in in either land. The narration's kind of detached, firmly fixed inside Eilis' head, yet immensely global and enthralling. Drink some well-balanced, full-flavored three star coffee while you read.

And finally, heading further afield (to Africa, seen through the eyes of an African American) The Uttermost Parts of the Earth by Frederic Hunter is a novel with a desperately real protagonist in situations that slide from merely unreal to desperately unreal. He works for the embassy and he just might be looking for his soul in Africa. But the girl he wants to marry has a thoroughly American soul. And the guide who helps him out when his boss goes missing... it's not clear where his soul lies. There are some pretty detailed scenes of sensuality, graphic horrors of war, and laugh-out-loud disasters of exile diplomats. Not an easy read, The Uttermost Parts of the Earth is nevertheless enthralling, captivating, unexpected and highly recommended.


Jean Harkin said…
I loved "Brooklyn" too, both the book and movie. My latest Goodreads blog hits on some of the same points you made about characters and reality.

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