Literature is an unbreakable bridge…When readers recognize themselves in a writer’s work, you’ve built this unbreakable bridge [between the writer and reader] that is a spiritual connection. ~Cheryl Strayed
The best stories, the most memorable stories, are the ones in which I develop a connection with the main character. I know when this begins to happen because I find myself (gasp) underlining sentences and, if I don’t have a pen handy, turning the corners of pages.
What is this connection? Connection can be a fanciful, dreamy term. Connection, in real life or in the pages of a good book, is recognition. It’s identifying with someone. It’s more than just a clever line or an unusual situation, which is why I rarely find recognition in genre stories where the focus is on the uniqueness of the character’s circumstances, rather than character himself. I can imagine how terrifying it would be to find myself stranded on Mars, but I never saw myself in Mark Watney.
That’s not to say that a character’s personality or circumstances should mirror my own. Recognition doesn’t need to come in the literary equivalent of a mini-me. In fact, the most poignant moments are when I see glimpses of myself in characters vastly different from me. Lily Bart in The House of Mirth. Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Eilis Lacey in Brooklyn. Mary Sutter in My Name Is Mary Sutter. These characters have lives that are nothing like mine, yet I feel that connection.
Seldon pushed his hat back and took a side glance at her. “Success—what is success? I shall be interested to have your definition.”
“Success?” She [Lily Bart] hesitated. “Why, to get as much out of life as one can, I suppose. It’s a relative quality after all.”
The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton
Alice, though, is an optimistic soul, so when she/“employee #305” enters her minimalist, impersonal white workplace she translates “stark” into “elegant.” Keep in mind she’s also an independent soul…who is determined to succeed. Fear of failure, a potent yet misguided motivator.
Alice feels personal, familiar. And I feel validated and acknowledged. I am seen, even though I may be alone in the room. I think this is what we mean when we say that we really like a character, and why it’s so difficult to continue reading a story with unlikeable characters.
I’m currently reading a novel with multiple alternating points of view. One of the characters, Willa, is instantly recognizable to me. The other points of view character, not so much. That’s not to say they aren’t wonderfully written characters—dynamic and interesting—just that I don’t have that special connection. I spend a lot of those chapters hoping that I’ll be getting back to Willa soon. I think this may often be the case in multiple point of view stories. The characters are in direct competition with each other for the reader’s attention. Readers may not get enough “page time” with any one character to develop this deep connection. Or they don’t like one of the point of view characters.
That deep recognition doesn’t happen in every book. It can be a bit elusive like chasing the Loch Ness monster, but when it does, it feels like that unbreakable bridge.
Have you had that deep recognition with any characters?
Have a great weekend, everyone!