Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I'll Never Forget...

iconic characters--individuals who exert transformative influence on the stories in which they appear; adults and young persons who are simultaneously focused on a goal, imbued with stoical good humor and empathy, should either be needed; persons whose responses under stress create a lasting impression with readers.

Whether they are of the ilk of Cormac McCarthy's sociopath killer, Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, the squeaky clean moralist, Sir Galahad of Arthurian legend, or the rather plain-appearing Jane Eyre, iconic characters have their eyes cast not on their immediate problems but seemingly fixed in intimate gaze with the reader. Appropriately enough, readers carry with them the images of such characters, long past the time their exploits in dealing with the entanglements of their plots are remembered. Even the wooden puppet, Pinocchio, the puppet who wanted to become a real boy, is iconic not because of the choices he made but because of his goal.

What the character wants and the path he or she pursues in order to achieve these ends are often the most magnetic qualities for readers. Each goal becomes a pole star for the character, influencing direction and behavior. A good approach to examining the qualities of these icons, male and female, young, middle-aged, and old, is to start with the more simplistic ones, the Dorothy Gales, wanting to get back home from Oz; the Horatio Alger shoe boy in the eponymous Ragged Dick, wanting to work his way upward toward success and self-esteem; the quintessential male free spirit, Huckleberry Finn, wanting to get away from an abusive father and an overly structured social environment. From there move on toward stories in which the moral landscape is grayer, the issues less likely to settled with one last-chapter speech from the likes of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

Some notable icons and what they want, which includes the real-life Joan as rendered by the Irish dramatist, George Bernard Shaw:

1. Emma Bovary excitement
2. Nora Helmer equality
3. Captain Ahab revenge
4. Jeffrey Spaulding lunch
5. Ratso Rizzi an angle--any angle
6. The Wife of Bath a husband who values her
7. Madam Arcarti a spell that actually works
8. Anton Chigurh people to play by the rules
9. Hester Prynne a good life for her daughter
10. Florentino Ariza Fermina Daza
11. Heathcliff Kathy Linton
12. The Pardoner respect

There are of course hundreds of icons to study, the better to assess what it is about them to cause them to stand out in the readers' memories. Hint: it is not necessarily their professional goals so much as it is the way they go about achieving their aims, their emotional responses to other characters, thus their empathy. Added hint: it is often the way they behave when they are feeling the most vulnerable--and make no mistake about it, they are vulnerable at various times--every one of them.

Final hint: make two lists of iconic characters, the first including all those you see as being conventional icons, the other list being entirely your own favorites, which may include favorites from stories you encountered in any medium.

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