When authors love their characters
One of the most interesting things I learned as an English major probably was not what that professor hoped I would take away from his class. We were discussing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” – considered an important work of fiction, especially if you’re enrolled in a women’s college in Massachusetts – and the professor asked us this thought-provoking question:
“Whose side do you think Hawthorne is on? Which character has the author’s empathy?”
None of us students had a clue as to how to figure this out, much less what the answer might be. The professor informed us that the character who had Hawthorne’s empathy was none other than Hester Prynne, his protagonist and a woman who is shunned by her community for having committed adultery.
Hawthorne’s affection for Hester, the professor further explained, could be discerned from his use of language – how he describes Hester, her circumstances, her actions – and how, in contrast, he describes those characters who contribute to her plight.
I found this fascinating, and ever since, whenever I read a book, I attempt to figure out which character the author loves the most. More often than not, there isn’t a specific passage that gives it away; rather, it’s a general sense of writerly affection that I perceive through the language as I read.
For example, Terry Pratchett, who writes the Discworld series of novels, seems to have found kindred spirits in the spectacularly incompetent wizard Rincewind and Sam Vimes, the cynical yet idealistic commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.
In “Jo’s Boys,” one of several sequels Louisa May Alcott wrote to “Little Women,” Alcott’s favorite character is very obviously Dan. His entire heart-wrenching story is laid out with such compassion, hope and tenderness, it makes me cry every time I read it.
How about you? Have you ever read a book and been able to tell which character has the author’s empathy? Does the author’s favorite character become your favorite character, or do you find yourself empathizing more with other characters in the book?
– Teresa Santoski