Character Development

By Jon Sanetel

What I find most interesting or important in stories, especially in fiction, are the relationships and insights that each character has. It makes for a more vivid and rich world to draw you into the book.  A book I read recently, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi Durrow, made good use of this.

The perspective character, Rachel has a memorable introduction and creates a vivid image of the character as well as her personality. The following is part of that introduction: “It was fall 1982 in Portland and it is raining. Puddle water has splashed up on my new shoes. My girl-in-a-new-dress feeling has faded. My new-girl feeling has disappeared.” Rachel stands outside herself and analyzes how she is perceived by others. This remains a constant theme throughout until she makes the decision that her self worth is determined by her and not other people.

Another aspect of Rachel’s insight is the symbolic blue glass bottle she keeps inside herself. The bottle holds all her hurt and frustrations. At one point it can’t hold anymore, it’s become too full and Rachel stands up for herself. Rachel says some of the things she has been thinking but, has been too kind or afraid to say. She is a great character in a well-crafted story.

When a novel carries images and characterizations throughout well it leaves an indelible mark on the reader’s psyche. I still remember reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and thinking there are parts of this that I can relate to because some of what the main character goes through are universal hardships that all people go through or experience to varying degrees as part of what is known as the “human condition”.

Books that offer different perspectives on an already well-worn path are also great. In those books your expectation of how people should interact with other and sometimes things in a given environment are turned on their head. A great example of this is P.D. James’ Shroud for a Nightingale. In that novel, the main character is a nurse and the detectives are secondary characters. So rather than seeing crime from the detective’s point of view, it is seen through the eyes of a medical professional with medical terminology.

When we see parts of ourselves or at least a semblance of the “human condition” in what we read it makes it that much easier to connect to what we read. There are books that could be better but, because they cover themselves in what one of my college philosophy professors termed “jargon chanting”, any meaningful connection gets lost or confused. Jargon chanting is when someone uses special subject or field related terminology to explain their meaning for them with the expectation that their audience is already aware of the terms’ meaning.

Character development, symbolism, and social dynamics are important to a good story. I look for these things in my personal reading as well as the books I review.

Jon Sanetel reviews for Portland Book Review.