Thursday, April 22, 2010

Caring About Characters

I’m teaching my high school class The Great Gatsby. (In addition to being a world-famous and justly-beloved novelist, I teach high school. We all have little pet dreams, I suppose; mine has always been to be a high school English teacher; I just write novels to pay the bills until the teaching thing works out.) Anyway, you remember Gatsby, right? It was the book they assigned in high school only you just watched the movie and read the Cliff’s Notes. So we get to the part after Daisy, who is driving Gatsby’s car, runs down and kills Myrtle Wilson. Gatsby, who has been carrying a torch for Daisy for the last five years is naturally going to take the blame for the hit and run. And Daisy, that bitch – sorry, there’s no other word for it – is going to let him do it! She won’t tell a soul it was she, not he, behind the wheel, and she’s going to let him face, a legal expert tells me, five to twenty-five years hard time for a crime she committed.

The thing about it is, Daisy is nothing more than ink spots on a page, but when they’re arranged in certain configurations, it still outrages me.

This sort of thing happens all the time; we read about purely fictional creations – creations we know are fictional in a book with a big fat warning – “a novel” – and a disclaimer like, “Any resemblance between characters in this book and actual people living or dead is purely coincidental,” and in spite of all this, we still worry if Inspector Mudge will unmask the killer or Rodney and Darlene will find true love. That we care so much for people we know full-well aren’t real is like… Well, imagine a magician saying, “I’m going to reach through a hole in the top of this trick hat, through a hole in the top of this trick table where I have concealed a specially-trained rabbit which I will extract from the hat as if he had materialized from thin air.” And then the magician doing exactly that, and the rubes in the audience saying, “Gaw-lee…” as they rub their slackened jaws in stupefied amazement.

But stories get this sort of reaction all the time.

Have you ever shouted – or wanted to shout – a warning to a character in a movie. “Don’t hide under the bed! It’s the first place he’ll look!” Or been unable to sleep because you needed one more chapter to see if Bilbo was going to outsmart a dragon in a cave. News flash, Bubby. Movie characters can’t hear you. And in The Hobbit, there is no cave, and there is no dragon. There’s the word dragon. The word cave.

Humans have this weird, almost pathological, ability to empathize. We feel sad to hear a stranger has died in an earthquake, happy when some frumpy lump turns out to have the voice of an angel, concerned when a kid floats off in a runaway balloon. (Later we’re furious – but equally entertained – that the whole thing was a hoax.) At some point, we don’t even care if the people are real, so long as the events are interesting.

I think this surely must have started at the very dawn of man. Two cavemen – not Geico cavemen, the real thing – we’ll call them – oh, what’s a good caveman name? – Lamar and Loomis. They have been chasing this one mastodon across the tundra for the last week. Lamar got a good spear thrust in him, and he and Loomis left the rest of the tribe, trailing him, skirting the face of a retreating glacier. It has been a lean winter, and no opportunity for meat can be allowed to slip by.

Of course being cavemen, they have no concept of a “week,” they just know it’s been a long time since they’ve seen another human. They also know they lost sight of the mastodon two days ago, but they’ve been following its tracks. Loomis claims the footprints show signs that their prey is seriously wounded and weakening, but privately Lamar isn’t so sure. Loomis says you can tell a lot from an animal’s tracks, but Loomis says a lot of things.

To make matters worse, the spring rains come early and Lamar and Loomis take shelter under an outcropping. It is very cold, and they are wet. And it is dark of a darkness none of us in our light-polluted world can ever imagine. Shut yourself in a closet, put a bag over your head, and close your eyes. It’s darker than that.

The situation is desperate to say the least. So Loomis begins talking – just nonsense, anything to take their minds off themselves. Silly stuff, the first thing that pops in his head. There’s a guy named Raindrop, and he’s on his way down the side of someone’s face, and he runs into Flea. And Flea and Raindrop have a conversation, oh, about a far-off land neither has seen, called Big Toe, and the two of them decide to set off to find it.

And at first Lamar is just listening because you can’t help listening when it’s dark and raining and cold and you’re lost and your belly’s empty and you don’t know where your next mastodon is coming from, but little by little Loomis’ magic begins to take hold. Lamar begins to wonder, will they make it to Big Toe, and if they do, what will happen there? And Loomis – who, if you remember, is making the whole thing up – begins to wonder himself, and not that it makes their lives any better, not really, but in the cold, dark, lonely rain they find themselves wondering and caring about two products of their own imagination.

And that was how the whole thing started: the wonderment we have at a story.

Do Flea and Raindrop reach Big Toe? Do Lamar and Loomis get their mastodon?

Man Martin is the author of the award-winning Days of the Endless Corvette.  His novella, Scoring Bertram Wiggly, is available exclusively on Kindle from, and his next novel, Paradise Dogs is due out next Spring from Thomas Dunne.  Visit him online at


Anonymous said...

This was a fabulous post. I love the Great Gatsby, by the way. Your essay made me want to read it again.

When people say publishing is dead and that no one is reading anymore, I know that it's mainly a lot of smoke. Like you said so well, people will always love stories and no medium delivers them quite the way a book does. I can't think of anything more satisfying than a well-told story.

Keetha said...

I love this! Great point, well-made.

Laura Marcella said...

My favorite books are the ones I get so involved in that I yell, "Don't look under the bed!" or whatever. I love feeling like I'm part of the story! That's the kind of writing I strive for.

Great post!

Levi Montgomery said...

I suppose we all have those moments that we can point to and say "Right there, right then, that's when I knew I was a writer." For me, that moment came when I received an email from a friend, a big, wooly, outdoors, lives-in-Alaske-in-the-wintertime friend, who said he had cried "not a slow weepy crying, but a sobbing, gasping, break-down kind of crying" when he realized the true depth of the separation of the characters in the novella I had sent him, and that there was not going to be a story-book ending for them. I felt, on one hand, like I should apologize, and on the other hand, that I had done my job.

JLC said...

I couldn't agree more with those who have commented--but I can't believe no one mentioned the surpassing artistry of this essay on its own! I'd crow if I could have written it. Oh, and I tried that English teaching gig for a while, but I decided that since I could manage to get a couple of books POD published and some unpaid time on a (really good) e-zine, I should probably stick to a real job.

Susan Woodring said...

I love that you say humans have a pathological need to empathize. True, I think. Lucky for us writers.

Patrick Brian Miller said...

I wish I had had a high school English teacher like you!

Cat Connor said...

I really enjoyed this post.

Thank you!