Books / Scribbles

Of characters and narratives

I asked my son one day if he wanted a Peter Rabbit storybook since he likes watching this series. His prompt reply was- “okay sure, but I want the Benjamin book”. Benjamin is Peter Rabbit’s friend who appears alongside him in all of his adventures in the woods.

This conversation with him reminded me of my reading journey and the characters I have come across. It was a sort of revelation that occurred to me immediately as I heard my son’s answer. Even though we form a love-hate relationship with the protagonist of the book, the other supporting characters which drive the story forward leave an aftertaste to our reading palate. And the book would be incomplete without them. They help to form the structure and at times amplify the protagonist’s character outline, deepening it and filling it with colors and tones.

Even though Hot Milk by Levy circles around Sofia and her mother, it isn’t easy to forget the doctor who cures Sofia’s mother. Similarly, What we Carry by Maya Shanbagh talks of a mother-daughter relationship but little Zoe’s references in the book bring in important perspectives too. Would we love or detest Sula as much as we do without Nel in the equation, and would Tequila Leila’s life trajectory be the same without her friendly troop- the silenced people of the society, each telling a distinct story in 10 minutes 38 seconds in this strange world. And what about Pecola? Every character in the bluest eye is as important as Pecola- the girl who wanted blue eyes. A third strand of the narrative is provided by Andy in An American Marriage to understand the dynamics of a marriage, one that is flailing but tied with a loose thread on the verge of breaking.

Just like the themes which form the necessary foundation to base the book on, characters form an integral part of its scope. These life figures lift that foundation, placing themselves aptly, giving it a third dimension, which is sometimes also called a POV. And hence, wouldn’t you agree a POV-driven book or a character-driven story is much loved amongst readers? Because it teases them to take sides, gives them a story within a story, and helps them find a relatable character who is sometimes not the protagonist. All this is very similar to falling for a side-kick instead of the main star in a movie.

The above were some names that came to me instantly, but I am sure if we dig deeper there are many more references and examples of such scenarios. Such is the magic of characters and narratives. Sometimes we identify ourselves in them, and they become our voice. I came across some wonderful lines in a book I was reading a few days back, written by Cusk, they summarised this identification perfectly.

“I said that if she was talking about identification, she was right- it was common enough to see oneself in others, particularly if those others existed at one remove from us, as for instance characters in a book do.”

Rachel Cusk, Transit