Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Oh the humanity!

Humor me for a moment, and engage in a short mental exercise with me. First, I want you to think of your favorite novel -- perhaps two or three favorites if you cannot narrow it down. Second, choose your favorite character(s) from the novel(s). Third, close your eyes and remember the character's journey in the story. What makes the character your favorite? What things do you love about the person? What things make you uncomfortable in his or her life story?

Close your eyes and think about it. Open your eyes when you are ready, and we'll continue to think about this together.

Very recently I finished the novel Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. The novel takes place in the time of the Great Depression and the Prohibition movement, and the storyline focuses on young Jacob Jankowski's exploits as he learns the ropes of life on a circus train. Jacob's life is an uncomfortable one. Tragedy seems to follow him in the beginning, and his thoughts and actions left me wishing he was a more savory person. He makes a few poor choices, allows others around him to influence him, and he loves the people and animals around him with an irrational sort of love. Reading about Jacob Jankowski's growth and development over the course of his years is not always a pleasant experience. At times I wanted to shield my mind's eye so that I could avoid "watching" what young Jacob would do. But, were I Sara Gruen, would I re-write Jacob's story if given the chance?

Absolutely not.

I truly believe that Water for Elephants is a bestseller for a few reasons:

1) The writing is beautiful and unusual. The storytelling from Jacob Jankowski's perspective reminds me of sitting down with a grandparent and listening about days gone by.

2) The story is intriguing. From the rugged time period, to the intricacies of circus life, this novel is filled with many elements that pique the curiosity of the reader.

3) Jacob Jankowski is human. He's like you, or like me. He makes mistakes. He lets things get the best of him. He allows himself to be swept under by love's current. Sara Gruen has allowed Jacob Jankowski to do things she probably never wanted him to do. His life took shape on the page, and Gruen allowed him to be human -- so much so that I was nearly afraid to relate to him.

If you are a writer, you need to let your characters be human. You can neither keep them from the inevitable mistakes they will make, nor can you polish them to glorious perfection after a slip up. They will be messy, dirty, and perhaps even undesirable. This is what endears them to us.

If you are a reader, open yourself up to love these unkempt characters. Underneath their foibles, their mistakes, and even their serious character flaws, they are like all of us. If you allow yourself to identify with the miscreant, the homely, the morally impoverished, you may find yourself changing along with them as they grow, mature, and develop. A good book - a great author - can take the unsavory and turn it into something beautiful. Should you desire that experience as you read, I would highly recommend Water for Elephants for your next read.


  1. April,

    I like your ideas here...good to think about as I venture into fiction writing. I'm afraid all of my characters will be boring or too perfect...have to remember to let them be interesting, flawed humans - just like all of us. (Some more "interesting" than others :-)

  2. Robyn,

    Thanks for reading my thoughts! As I was reading Water for Elephants, there were several times that I found myself thinking, "Goodness! Was THAT necessary?!" But, by the end, those unpleasant reading moments had made me love Jacob Jankowski and want the world for him.