Character

I haven’t made a post for a while now, for several reasons: I’m still finishing off Charlie Higson’s dystopian series for teens (I’m reading The End and hoping that all my many questions are answered); I started teaching my Readers’ Advisory class at UCLA this past Tuesday and have spent some of my time preparing for that (mostly cleaning up my combination office/art studio so it’s fit to be seen in the background of Zoom); and I’ve been rather caught up in the political events of the day (unhealthy obsession with Facebook posts). But I should be at the end of The End soon, and on to my next read.

In the meantime, the combination of contemplating “appeals” for readers’ advisory and doing a massive clear-out, clean-up, and re-shelving of my entire library of fiction in my four bedroom bookshelves caused me to think about the nature of “character” as a dominating force in fiction.

To explain a bit for those who are not up on librarian lingo, appeals are what we call the various reasons why people enjoy what they read. Some people are motivated by adrenalin and want something fast-paced and exciting; others love beautiful language and want to be wooed by unusual or lyrical phrasing; and one particularly powerful appeal is that of “character.” The ability to identify with or, alternatively, loathe a character or set of characters in a book is one aspect that draws people to read more. The success of the belabored Harry Potter franchise is largely due to the desire to find out what happens next to the maturing Harry and his friends, and all of us can probably think of a book or five whose characters were what kept us coming back to its pages. A few recent books in which character dominated include Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, A Man Called Ove, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. (A major clue as to whether the book is character-driven is if the main character’s name appears in the title. Witness Harry Potter and the….)

As I have mentioned here several times, belonging to the Facebook group “What Should I Read Next?” is sometimes an exercise in patience, because most of the readers there have become caught up in the bestseller craze and all end up reading the same 12 books. So in the effort to find them—and you—other compelling reads, I thought I would spend a blog post examining some of my past favorites that are wholly about the character.

A compelling writer of character-driven works is the author Mary Renault, and although her entire oeuvre contains much to appreciate, there is not another that rivals The Persian Boy, her tale of a bed slave named Bagoas who was abducted, gelded, and sold as a courtesan to King Darius of Persia. When Alexander and his Macedonian army conquer the Persians, Bagoas finds himself in a rather untenable position and decides he will achieve safety only by ingratiating himself with the conqueror himself. Although Alexander is quick to see the appeal of this highly motivated slave, he is slow to take advantage of his utter dependency, and the courtship between the two of them is both touching and fiery.

The Persian Boy is actually the second in a series of three books Renault wrote about Alexander. The early years, when he rises from a beleaguered son of warring parents to become the master of all lands he surveys, are covered in Fire from Heaven, in which he experiences love and trust for the first time with his best friend and fellow warrior, Hephaistion. But that book is far more event-driven, whereas The Persian Boy, being narrated from the point of view of someone with whom Alexander had a solely personal connection, is limited in scope in terms of world events but much more specific about the relationships. It is, in fact, a love story, and I would regard it as one of the great ones, containing as it does not just attraction or romance but also loss and pain, desire and jealousy, joy, courage, and cowardice. It is an exceedingly intimate view of Alexander the man beside that of Alexander the great warrior, and is filtered through the emotions and psychology of a patient bystander.

At the beginning of the third book, Funeral Games, Alexander the Great lies dying, surrounded by his former generals, satraps, and wives, all competing like wolves for the prizes of power and land. Only the two loves of his life, Hephaistion and Bagoas, realize and truly mourn what has been lost. Funeral Games documents the disintegration of the mighty empire built in 20 years and brings Alexander’s saga from age 12 to 33 to its close.

There is a variability of voice in these tales that lets them be read as a series but also allows the reader to experience them as stand-alone novels. The first is told in the first person by Alexander; the second is the purview of Bagoas; and the third is written from a third-person observer stance. I discovered and read The Persian Boy first, only picking up the others afterwards, and felt no sense that anything was missing in that first reading. When people ask for an LGBTQ love story that goes beyond the contemporary meet-cute or the simultaneous struggle with coming out that invades so many of
these stories, my thoughts immediately return to the yearning and transcendent happiness contained with the pages of Renault’s
classic work.

Another protagonist with whom I have been in love since the first time I read the book is Shevek, the humble man and brilliant physicist at the heart of Ursula K. LeGuin’s book The Dispossessed. The book is a recounting of an existential thought experiment: The author posits what would happen to individuals in a social system that rewards conformity, although that social system in this case is based on a sort of group anarchy. Urras is a world much like our own, driven by commerce. Within its teeming millions is a group of individuals who wish to live their lives quite differently and, because Anarres, the moon of their planet, is suitable (though not ideal) for human life, they are allowed to colonize it. The two societies make a pact that neither will invade the other and, for more than 100 years, not one individual from either society has crossed the line between them except for shipments of supplies that arrive and leave the small port on Anarres.

A map I made to illustrate LeGuin’s masterpiece.

Shevek grows up in this ascetic society, a planned utopia where no one takes precedence over anyone else, where each is valued but all are expected to make their contribution to society in return for a place in it. He does his part, planting trees in the desert, drawing food service or waste management tasks for 10 days at a time, and through it all manages to find a great love, Takver, and have children; but while he goes through these tasks of daily life, his brain is operating on another plain—trying to understand temporal physics—that demands discussion, the exchange of ideas, and a close relationship with those on his mental level who are capable of understanding his brilliance. Ultimately, he makes the choice, despite the possibility of losing his home, his family, perhaps even his life, to go back to Urras to see what the scientists of that world have to offer him.

The fascinating part of the book is how the society on Anarres was originally founded as a profound act of nonconformity, and yet ends up suppressing originality and demanding obedience from a man chafing under its restrictions. LeGuin achieves her objective—the exploration of the concept of freedom—by letting the reader recognize the virtues of the system under which Shevek lives and
then realize how stifling it has become, without being either polemical or strident.

If it weren’t for the “stigma” of being categorized as science fiction, I believe this book would take its place amongst the most important of classic novels, and that Shevek would be a much more well-known protagonist in the reading world.

Some books you love for a protagonist, and some for an entire cast of characters. In the second category are the books by E. F. Benson that were latterly brought together in an Omnibus volume called Make Way for Lucia. There are six Mapp and Lucia novels in the series, and they must be read in order, for events take on importance in a specific sequence that must be appreciated.

At first glance, you might not think that a view into the social world of upper-middle class Edwardian village dwellers would be particularly compelling. But what you have to understand about the Mapp and Lucia books is the exaggerated degree of sheer triviality that guarantees a contrary fascination. Benson had a disdain for middle class people pretending to a rank to which they are not entitled, and his satires of these mushrooms trying to push their way into high society are brilliant and also funny as hell.

The books feature the feuding doyennes of Riseholme and Tilling, whose decidedly bourgeois residents get flustered in the presence of noble titles but king and queen it in the presence of everyone else. The main protagonists—or should we call them pugilists?—are Emmeline Lucas, designated “Lucia,” and Elizabeth Mapp. Though the stories begin with each of them ruling their respective roosts with total social supremacy in their separate villages, fate brings them together to hilarious effect. But the reader is not solely reliant on Lucia and Miss Mapp in these stories; Benson has created a whole cast of characters, including the dashing Georgie Pillson, aging bachelor, with his elbow-length cape and carefully trained piece of hair draped over his scalp; the drunken and slightly naughty Major Benjy; artist and naked sunbather Irene Coles; Mrs. Boucher with her daughters, Piggy and Goosie, in tow; and so many more. The tempests in the teapots that are the meat of these ’20s and ’30s comedies of manners are hilarious, witty, and slightly nasty. In other words, inspired. Auberon Waugh, eldest son of Evelyn, said,

“I might have gone to my grave
without ever knowing about
Lucia and Miss Mapp. It is not a risk
anyone should take lightly.”

It’s about time for me to read them for the third time.

I hope you have enjoyed this meander through some character-driven books, and that it will inspire you to look them up for yourself or to reflect on the characters that have come to life for you during your lifetime of reading. If any compelling ones occur to you, please share!

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