Why We Read: To Recognize Ourselves

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

I found that recognition most recently in Alice Pearse in A Window Openswho is desperately trying to find a work/life balance. This is from Lorraine’s review at Enchanted Prose:

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.

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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! 

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20 comments

  1. Lily Bart was one of those characters.
    I have a confession to make. I saw this book in your sidebar and was so interested that I had to order it. I haven’t started it yet but I’m looking forward to it. It looked intriguing but the fact that you liked it makes it even more appealing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. There were a few gaps in the way several sub-plot points were resolved, but this didn’t lessen my enjoyment. I realized that these sub-plots were not as important as the main focus — balancing outer expectations with inner expectations. The main character’s relationship with her father was especially touching.

      I’ll be eager to learn your thoughts.

      Like

      1. The House of Mirth… I enjoyed that book, except for the ending. A cop-out ending, I thought, hugely disappointing. A friend of mine who knows something about literature explained to me why the book ended the way it did, based on when the book was written and the moral standards of that time.

        As Lily Bart, great character, and very “relateable” for me, too.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh, the ending of The House of Mirth… it still makes me mad. But Lily is fantastic and Wharton knew just how to bring her to life. I have underlined so many passages of my book.

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  2. Hi Jackie. It is that flash of recognition that we often search for as readers–regardless of whether the character is Holden Caufield or Jay Gatsby! Sometimes I’m surprised where I find connections. I just finished Ordinary Grace, which was a terrific book. I didn’t expect to find moments of connection with a 13-year-old boy, but then again, I did. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t that one of the delicious mysteries of reading, Patti? That these connections can pop up when we least expect them is one of the great joys of cracking open a new book.

      I haven’t ready Ordinary Grace, but I will be on the lookout for it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Jackie, Glad The Window Opens worked so well for you, but sorry that’s not the case with The Truth According to Us, which you know I loved. Your post offers some food for thought. I wonder if it’s because sometimes I don’t have to feel an emotional connection to the characters, rather an emotional response, call it inspiration, to the prose?

    David Brooks has an interesting column today (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/29/opinion/if-not-trump-what.html?_r=0) discussing how he plans to spend more time focusing on the pain of our country given what Trump and Sanders have revealed, admitting he feels he missed things staying too insulated. He said the economy today is all about “emotional connection and verbal expressiveness.” Which made me think about being inspired by the verbal but not the character. I’m working on a blog post now in which I have no connection to the characters or lifestyle — about an artist and his muse — but the prose is poetic and the artist’s obession with this one model, so intriguing. Does this make any sense?!

    Have a great weekend. Lorraine

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lorraine,
      Oh I didn’t mean to give the impression that I’m not enjoying The Truth According to Us. I love it. I love how Barrows draws the small town — always present, even when they’re not on the page. You can feel the weight of them and their gossip mongering just at the edge. I also love how Barrows crafts the cadence of their speech without spelling out the dialect. It feels authentic.

      I found myself enjoying Willa’s POV best, and I can’t wait to get back to her. Maybe she reminds me a bit of Scout. 🙂

      Thank you for including that link to David Brooks’s article. Yes, that makes a lot of sense to me. Looking forward to that blog post!

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      1. Pleased to hear you’re enjoying The Truth …, Jackie, as a big time commitment. Would love to see the word spread about it more. Have a great week. Lorraine

        Like

  4. You really made me think with this one, Jackie.

    I tend to pick books that are about people who intrigue me, but I don’t necessarily relate to them. For instance, a young boy in Nazi Germany or an old man in Paris, or a really evil wife. I want to understand what makes them do the things they do. The only exception I can think of is Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods. I couldn’t wait to finish that book because O’Brien put the reader inside a really creepy character’s head. I would have liked some more distance, but it was very effective, I have to admit.

    What I do relate to is prose that really speaks to me. I’ll start nodding and/or underlining the words.The writer has voiced something I may have thought before, or something entirely new, and in a beautiful way. I’m now wondering if I’m drawn to the words more than the characters sometimes. The story has to be good, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Beautiful prose is inspiring. I love when an author can use a certain combination of words to make me see things in a new way. Something I aspire to!

      I’ve not read Tim O’Brien’s book. The only work I’ve read of his was The Things They Carried, which was creepy in its realism.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dude you are totally on point with this post! I completely agree with you, if I make a connection with a character it sticks all the way through, but if there’s no spark, nothing relatable I get lost. but there have been some pretty cool books. I mean I had nothing in common with The Martian but I so enjoyed the character. I loved reading underdog comeback stories though … Unbroken is one of my favorites. Nice post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unbroken — that was quite a story, wasn’t it? If it had been labeled fiction, I would have said that it was completely unrealistic. No one could have possibly gone through all of that. Knowing that it was all true, made it all the more amazing — and sad. I heard Louis Z passed away recently. I think he was in his 90s.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. What a beautiful way to put it. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but I agree. When I open the cover on a new book, I want to feel that the main character and I are in this together.
      Thank you for sharing!

      Like

  6. This post, as well as the discussion that follows is interesting.

    I finished reading This Side of Providence by Rachel M. Harper (which I highly recommend) and I had nothing in common with the characters, but found myself vested in their plights. The book is written with intense lyricism, but I think for me, the work resonated because she captured the universal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so interesting when we can find some way to identify with characters who are so unlike us. I marvel how the author is able to do this. I search the text for clues. I think you’re right on about capturing the universal in the specific.

      Like

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