We often talk about what we’re reading but not how we choose what we read. The story behind those to-be read lists, however, deserves its share of spotlight.
This past weekend, I went to the Baltimore Book Festival for the first time. Greeted by unseasonably warm weather, throngs of readers strolled among tents featuring authors talking about their works. I attended lectures on editing bon mots,[*] social justice, monsters in modern horror, and food in science fiction. I bought and discussed books whose titles I just learned that day. Being an avid reader, I loved having the opportunity to delve into new topics and books I didn’t know existed. Perhaps the only book-related topic I didn’t hear mentioned was how we find the books we choose to read when we don’t have a handy festival to suggest interesting titles. We often talk about what we’re reading but not how we choose what we read. The story behind those to-be read lists, however, deserves its share of spotlight.
Polling the Readers
I’ll admit that this topic that occurred to me well before I sauntered forth to bake in the Baltimorean sunshine amongst the bookish. Perhaps a week or two earlier, I’d been looking over lists of books I read or intended to read and came to the realization that many recommendations came from Twitter, Instagram, Goodreads, WordPress, and even (on occasion) Facebook.[†] Being curious, I conducted a small poll on Twitter to find out whether any other readers saw their reading lists expand courtesy of social media. Slightly over half of my respondents agreed that social media helped grow their reading lists, with contemporary fiction writer and blogger Nastasya Parker observing that these recommendations made her reading “even more rewarding”. Novelist Anne Charnock (Dreams Before the Start of Time) concurred, stating that “Twitter is good for book recommendations—from a bunch of people whose recs are pretty reliable”. The remaining individuals divided into those who felt social media hadn’t increased the length of their reading lists (slightly over 25%) and those who were unsure. Arguably, these results could depend on how those individuals use social media. Not everyone goes to Twitter and asks, “Read a good book lately?” or finds people whose reading habits resonate with their own.
I certainly hadn’t expected better to-be read book lists to be part of the bargain when I’d joined some social media outlets.[‡] However, my first Twitter chat revealed the power of the social reading community. When several like-minded individuals gather to talk about books, there’s a good chance for discovering new titles to read. In this case, the July 2016 #women_writers chat focused on reading women in translation, and, as I noted in a different post, I discovered a gap in my reading. It wasn’t long before several books were proposed to remedy that problem. I could (and did) find articles suggesting books to read for #WITmonth (like this one), but receiving multiple recommendations for certain books or authors from this group really identified worthy titles.[§] And I’ve had similar experiences with Instagram (The Reading Women come to mind) and my Goodread reading groups, to name a few.
So, spending more time on social media perversely improved my offline reading. Of course, it’s not the only place to find captivating books to read. There’s reviews (in print and online), best-seller lists, and so forth. There’s even the simple expedient of walking into the local library or bookshop and checking out what’s on display. Social media, however, makes it easier to connect with people who share your reading tastes and make reliable recommendations. Reading tends to be a solitary pursuit, but looking for new books to read needn’t be lonesome.
Has social media improved your reading list? Let me know and share your suggestions for a good read!
[†] I also created an imaginary click-bait link: “How Twitter Improved My Reading Life!” (In my head, titles like this seem to read by an old-timey news broadcaster). Naturally, should this article have existed, it would have parodied articles devoted to improving one’s romantic/sex life.
[‡] Except Goodreads. Because that’s rather the whole point, isn’t it?
[§] Two different Goodreads groups recommended works by Han Kang (either The Vegetarian or Human Acts), as did Twitter chats and various Instagram posters. Both books were compelling, challenging reads.
The hobbies we see in fiction represent the writer’s use of a practical and versatile approach to character that extends past its initial role in characterization to developing other areas of a narrative as much or as little is needed to achieve the story’s goals.
In the previous post, I discussed how hobbies in fiction help develop characters, something which can set up expectations of character behavior as well as lend itself to exploring a work’s thematic elements. In part II, I look at how hobbies influence setting and plot.
Setting and Hobbies: Everything in Its Place and Time
Because characterization is the most obvious effect a character’s hobby has, it’s perhaps less intuitive that character hobbies make demands of the setting. Hobbies, however, must be conducted somewhere and that’s where setting comes in. Some hobbies, being rather portable (reading), can occur wherever it suits the writer, while others dictate the setting where they occur (surfing). Writers, therefore, can use hobbies as a reason to place characters into a specific setting where they wish the scene/story to occur. Travel for pleasure[*] happens to be a rather effective hobby that allows writers to introduce their characters to new people, places and experiences. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel The Wind in the Willows regularly falls in love with new means of transport (whether its rowboats or motor cars) that let him travel and adventure. While Toad’s hobbies often reveal his impulsiveness and reckless side, one of the book’s notable adventures begin when Toad’s enthusiasm for the latest vehicle spurs him to gather his friends to travel and seek excitement. Similarly, hobbies can signal the story’s timeline. In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the presence of Garbage Pail Kids collectible trading cards reveal Tracey’s subversive edge and her tendency towards divisiveness as well as places the timeline in the mid-1980s.
Setting the Plot: Hobbies, World-Building and Plot in the Harry Potter Series
Given the greater burdens that exist for establishing settings in fictional genres that involve world-building,[‡] character hobbies can be a useful means for conveying information about these settings. Fantasy novels, for example, typically involve intense world-building since they diverge from strictly realistic settings. J. K. Rowling based her Harry Potter series in a hidden magical realm that exists alongside the real world. Although a portion of her setting existed, the magical areas of the world did not. Therefore, she needed to create the parameters for these magical places, their inhabitants, their society, how these realms and their elements interact (eg, magic makes electrical items malfunction), and so forth. Newcomer Harry Potter acts as the reader’s stand-in for these discoveries in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.[§] Rowling uses a common childhood hobby to allow for comparisons between the magical and nonmagical settings to illustrate how the former operates (in its role of world-building) as well as cleverly introduces a mean of revealing information that forwards her novel’s plot significantly.
The Famous Witch and Wizard Cards: Hobbies as an Approach to Establishing Setting
Much like Smith, Rowling employs trading cards in her story—but with the expected magical twist. While traveling to wizarding school, Harry purchases the unfamiliar foodstuff of the magical world. Among his sweets are Chocolate Frogs, which come with the Famous Witches and Wizards (FWW) cards. In the real world, trading cards that feature real people often provide an image of the person and some relevant information about the individual (eg, baseball cards indicate the player’s position and stats). The FWW cards Harry receives mirror such cards in that they include a picture of the witch or wizard accompanied by a biography that lists their claim to fame and other interesting trivia such as their hobbies.[**] What makes them different is that the cards are enchanted, with the images moving like living people (Rowling 101–3). In addition to allowing readers to see how trading cards differ between these realms, these cards also prepare the readers and Harry for how other pictorial representations behave in the magical world (eg, portraits that he encounters speak to people and travel from frame to frame). Its role in helping establish expectations for this magical setting, then, even supersedes that of delivering (or confirming with some details) biographical information about school headmaster and major character Albus Dumbledore—the subject of Harry’s first FWW card.
Setting to Plotting
Rowling’s ingenuity is not limited to creating comparisons between the world Harry knows and the one he’s joined. In contrast to Smith’s Garbage Pail Kids, the presence of the magical trading cards reveal little about the children collecting them (as I noted above, we learn more about Dumbledore here). However, Rowling’s inclusion of this hobby is inspired because such cards are natural things for children to collect—as Ron and Harry do—and it allows her to interject information into the narrative as needed. During his first weeks at school, Harry and his friends (Ron and Hermione Granger) become aware that some important item recently arrived at the school for safekeeping and that there had been attempts to steal it. Having learned through unintended admission that the hidden object involved both Albus Dumbledore and another wizard named Nicolas Flamel (a name Harry is certain that he read previously), the children begin researching Flamel in hopes of finding more information about the object and why it is being hidden. Shortly after the Christmas holidays end, Neville Longbottom gives Harry one of the FWW cards for his collection. It’s the Dumbledore card, which mentions his alchemical work with Flamel—hence the reason Flamel’s name seemed familiar to Harry. With this insight, Hermione locates the necessary details about Flamel, which in turn reveals that the Philosopher’s Stone is the item hidden at the school (102–103, 218–220). Discovering that the mystery item is the Philosopher’s Stone (as well as why someone would steal it) is a major plot point here, and it’s Harry’s modest hobby of collecting FWW cards that allows the children to make this leap.
Hobbies and Fiction
Rowling frequently and often playfully employed hobbies throughout her Harry Potter series, using them to reveal facts about characters, forward plot and even provide opportunities for her fictional adolescents to change settings (Quidditich, for one, gets them outside the castle). Writers such as Rowling, of course, rarely add details about characters to provide a laundry list of biographical data, something which most readers would likely find dull. Instead, she provides hobbies with specific goals: showing Molly Weasley’s kindliness when she knits Harry a sweater for the holidays or revealing Hagrid’s pet hobby of raising dangerous critters, something which informs the plot in a few places (in this book and others). Including character hobbies is among the important decisions a writer makes when developing a character, one that stretches beyond the role of characterization. Therefore, the hobbies we see in fiction represent the writer’s use of a practical and versatile approach to character that extends past its initial role in characterization to developing other areas of a narrative as much or as little is needed to achieve the story’s goals.
[*] Travel for personal enjoyment allows many fictional detectives to leave their normal environment and discover mysteries in the wild, as it were. It’s also a matter of practicality in detective series: mysteries always started at the detective’s office or set in an amateur detective’s hometown can become formulaic.
[‡] Genres most identified with world-building are science-fiction/speculative and fantasy fiction, both of which constructing new worlds. I’d argue historical fiction also belongs here, as world-building in this genre takes the form of reconstructing the world of the past.
[§] However much it annoys me that the American title differs from the British one, it’s the title of my copy and therefore the one I must use for the citation:
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Press, 1997.
[**] Hobbies within hobbies! Of note, the FWW cards play a role in characterization here, although it’s not the scene’s focus.
Depending on how a writer employs character hobbies in their narrative, these pastimes can influence the characterization, setting, plot, and thematic elements.
Sufficiently realistic characters are part of fiction’s great juggling act—its need to appear plausible enough for readers to suspend their disbelief and engage with the story and its emotional truths. When writers develop their characters, they provide them with relationships (friends, family, lovers, etc), careers, backstories, hobbies, and so forth to achieve this verisimilitude. Of these items, I find how writers use hobbies in their stories fascinating because hobbies can serve many purposes besides filling out a character’s biography sheet. For example, hobbies[*] (to paraphrase what I’ve said elsewhere) often serve as a shorthand form of characterization because they can reveal aspects of the character’s personality through their interests. Depending on how a writer employs character hobbies in their narrative, these pastimes can influence the characterization, setting, plot, and thematic elements. In this first of two parts discussing the role of hobbies is fiction, I’ll take a look at the clever ways in which writers use hobbies to develop characters and explore theme. Part II will look at the roles hobbies have in establishing the setting and forwarding plot.
Rounding out Characters
As I’ve implied, the primary role hobbies play in fiction involves characterization. The degree to which they inform the text about the character, however, varies. Providing biographical details is an excellent way to flesh out relatively minor characters. Sylvia Keene, a young woman discussed in Agatha Christie’s short story “The Herb of Death”, played tennis. This detail is mentioned as part of a brief “verbal portrait” provided by characters (Arthur and Dolly Bantry) who are discussing the circumstances of her death. Arthur observes she played tennis gracefully, which (along with youth and good looks) was part of her charm. In this regard, tennis reveals Sylvia’s characteristic grace but tells us little else about her. Similarly, a hobby might confirm or provide additional evidence of a character’s known interests. Librarian Polly Duncan, love interest to James Qwilleran (the main human character) from The Cat Who series, is an avid reader, a detail that merely confirms the bookishness her career choice suggested.
Characterization and Themes
However, hobbies frequently provide readers with greater insights into the character’s personality and their behavior. Some hobbies tend to be associated with certain types of behavior or personality types. Angling, for example, is associated with quietness because it’s alleged that fish avoid noisy spots. Hobby stereotypes also exist: stamp collectors traditionally are thought of as reclusive and nerdy. Since these expectations exist, writers can use them to signal the character has certain traits or tendencies.[†] In The Lovely Bones,[‡] author Alice Sebold initially presents Jack Salmon as a father dealing his daughter Susie’s disappearance/murder. When Sebold introduces his hobby, readers gain insights into Jack’s personality and the family’s dynamics as she explore the novel’s themes.
A few weeks after Susie’s death, Jack enters his den to clean it up as part of an effort “to move forward” (45). As Susie (the narrator) explains, Jack’s den is where he either reads or builds miniature ships in bottle after work, with Susie often acting as his assistant. Sebold’s choice of hobby hints at traits Jack possesses. Since building these bottles requires painstaking effort, we’d expect anyone who attempting this hobby to be patient and meticulous. Susie confirms this impression by noting he “he counted numbers—due diligence” for an insurance company (45). Based on this description of Jack (reading, ship building, number crunching), readers might expect him to be typically quiet and mild mannered.
Susie also informs readers that Jack learned how to build these ship from his father, but she was the only other person in his own household who shares his love of these ships. Jack makes several failed attempts to entice his other children into building ships with him, demonstrating how important sharing this hobby is to him. Jack’s success with Susie also lets Sebold show readers that Susie shares some of her father’s qualities. As an amateur photographer who dreamed of becoming a wildlife photographer, she possesses that same careful patience—whether it’s holding the bottle while waiting for the ship sails to rise or catching the right moment to snap a photo. Obviously, this activity represents a bonding experience, one which likely held greater significance for Jack given that no one else wanted to spend time working on these boats with him. In some ways, losing Susie means Jack loses someone who understands this side of him.
Jack’s mission to clear away his treasured ships—now painful reminders of Susie—takes a violent turn as he begins throwing and crashing them against the walls. The symbolism here is evident: the bottles are as shattered as Jack’s world. Sebold, of course, could have chosen to have Jack break anything to demonstrate his emotional turbulence. Destroying his treasured ships, items so closely associated with his murdered daughter, is a more poignant choice: nothing else but his tremendous grief could have prompted Jack to ruin them—or arguably provoked such violence from him. As loss and grief are among the novel’s central themes, Sebold’s inclusion of this scene is brilliant because it lets us see how Jack’s emotional landscape altered in response to Susie’s murder. His reaction to her loss, his grieving, involves fury that she was taken suddenly and violently. It also prepares readers for a future occasion when Jack’s grief and anger erupt again, this time with greater ramifications.
Having shown Jack’s emotional state and prepared readers for other instances what otherwise would have been out-of-character behavior, Sebold could have abandoned further mentions of ships, letting them remain casualties of Jack’s grief. Instead, she revisits Jack’s hobby one last time to beautifully illustrate Jack’s progression through the stages of mourning. Years later, Jack learns his other daughter is expecting a child and dreams of teaching another child to share his love of these ships, even as he knows that doing so will always remind him of his lost child. While Jack will never stop missing Susie, he has accepted her death and is now truly moving forward as best he can. In this moment, we see all the novel’s themes—loss, grief, and love and acceptance—tangled in Jack’s humble hopes for the future.
Sebold’s thoughtful use of Jack’s hobby shows some (though not all) of the more complex ways a hobby can influence a story through characterization: it suggests his personality (supported by career choices and other pastimes), show us how his hobby connects him or distances from family, reveals how grief changes him, and how acceptance reconnects him to himself. In part II of “Fiction and the Versatile Hobby”, I’ll examine the roles, both small and great, hobbies play when we consider story settings and plot.
[*] Countless activities can be considered hobbies, ranging from sports to collecting. There are crossovers between hobbies and professions (an amateur painter versus the professional), with some people occasionally even supplementing their primary income with earnings from such pursuits and others managing to translate a hobby into a career (the home cook turned professional). However fine these distinctions may be, generally the hobby is the one that earns less, is conducted only in one’s spare time, and would not be considered as an occupation by its practitioner.
“I got dressed to begin another day. Over and over, we begin again.”
The heart of the home truly is the kitchen for the young protagonist of Banana Yoshimoto’s debut novel Kitchen (translated by Megan Backus). University student Mikage Sakurai loves kitchens, which become her refuge when the death of her grandmother making her an orphan twice over.[*] Stunned by her utter solitude (“It’s total science fiction. The blackness of the cosmos.”), she only can sleep next to the humming refrigerator. Other obligations also press on her. While her grandmother left her money,[†] she nonetheless must downsize her apartment to stretch her funds. Still grief-stricken, the thought of moving and house hunting paralyzes her. Fortunately, Mikage also inherits her grandmother’s friendship with Yuichi Tanabe. Yuichi, a younger university student, works part-time at the floral shop her grandmother frequented. He and his mother, Eriko, offer a much needed respite by opening their home to Mikage, complete with a beautiful kitchen (“It was a good kitchen. I fell in love with it at first sight”).
Grief, Connection, and Magic
Yoshimoto’s novel (as well as its novella companion “Moonlight Shadow”)[‡] contemplates grief and loneliness with a delicate touch. While these emotions predominate, they are offset by moments of joy and connection. Yoshimoto uses light and dark imagery symbolically to reinforce these feelings: in the novel’s second half, “the telephone was glowing” in Yuichi’s mind whereas Mikage felt the line to Yuichi was submerged in deep, dark water, respectively suggesting his need for her companionship and her recognition of his grief. Part of the novel’s charm in negotiating such difficult topics involves its subtle use of magical realism that confers an almost fairy-tale quality to the story. Yuichi appears at just the right moment to offer Mikage a place to live while she sorts out her affairs. Both young people share a remarkable dream that takes place in the grandmother’s now empty kitchen, in which Yuichi implores Mikage to stay at his family’s apartment. Mikage even intuits which hotel room belongs to Yuichi before scaling the wall to deliver him katsudon. (This latter example also represents a brilliant gender role reversal, as Mikage plays—albeit comically—the traditionally male role of rescuer for a distressed Yuichi.)
However magical her delivery may be, Yoshimoto does not shield her characters from pain. Eriko explains hers (and the novel’s) philosophy to Mikage: we must experience “true despair” to understand joy. Mikage also comes to accept that, even when we are with others, we are always alone. While she despairs that we’re “always defeated”, this knowledge lets her live more fully. Grief, therefore, is transformative in Kitchen. Having discovered a passion for cooking while living with the Tanabes, Mikage leaves university and successfully embarks on a cooking career despite her limited qualifications. Eriko’s own experience of grief literally changes her. Watching his wife slowly succumb to cancer forced Eriko to understand that “the world didn’t exist for [his] benefit”.[§] Becoming aware that he disliked being a man and realizing he would never love again, Eriko transitioned to a woman and opened a gay nightclub,[**] thereby straddling roles of provider and nurturer. Her story essentially serves as a loose guide for Mikage who also bridges these roles: cooking is her profession but it is one that nurtures.
The kitchen, of course, serves as an extended metaphor throughout this novel, representing that which sustains people through terrible loss, both in terms of sustenance (food, nourishment) and refuge. Kitchen creates this space as a haven for healing and connection, perhaps even new beginnings. And it’s this uplifting spirit that makes Kitchen a story that satisfies indeed.
[*] Mikage’s grandparents raised her after her parents died. Her grandfather subsequently died while she was in junior high school. Hence, she’s doubly orphaned by losing two sets of guardians.
[†] Discovering an orphaned character who isn’t destitute is a pleasure.
[‡] “Moonlight Shadow” (also translated by Megan Backus) typically accompanies Kitchen. My focus here is on the larger work.
[§] My pronoun usage mirrors that of the novel, using female for post-transition and male pronouns for pre-transition Eriko (formerly called Yugi).
[**] It’s worth observing that most characters seem to respect Eriko’s gender identity, even though it’s mentioned on occasion that Eriko is “really a man”. Given that Eriko’s fate is common for transgender women, a content warning is appropriate.
How do we make someone whose actions are unpalatable worthy of readers’ empathy? We give them the emotional truth of the character’s situation.
In the afterword of The Bonesetter’s Daughter, author Amy Tan discusses the novel with friend, editor and fellow author, Molly Giles. Tan, known for using autobiographical elements in her stories, indicates that she chose to depict the “emotional truth” of her experiences opposed to fictionalizing actual events. Emotional truth resonates with me, both as reader and writer, because that frisson of honest feeling connects character to reader. Regardless of a story’s inspiration (eg, writer’s life, historical events, imagination), we want our readers to be engaged with our characters’ struggles. Some characters, of course, earn a reader’s regard with ease because their difficulties are readily observed and understandable. Orphaned children, as I noted in a different post, generate instant sympathy because of their youth and built-in disadvantages. The greater difficulty, however, lies in making less likeable characters sympathetic. How do we make someone whose actions are unpalatable worthy of readers’ empathy? We find ways show readers the emotional truth of the character’s situation.
It’s in the Details: Wording and Pacing
Writing about a difficult character’s emotional truth requires some finesse. Stating directly (through exposition or dialogue) that the character’s grief (for example) causes them to be antisocial lacks impact, particularly when the story relies heavily on that character’s perspective. Readers need insights into problematic behavior, so that they can relate to troubled or outright unlikable individuals. In The Girl on the Train, the musings of Paula Hawkins’s flawed primary protagonist and narrator, Rachel,[*] immediately provide small but revealing details [†] about her emotional landscape. We are alerted to the importance of these details by the word choices Hawkins employs.
On a morning train to London, Rachel observes clothing left next to the tracks when the train stops at a signal. Imagining reasons for their presence (including her allusion to a potentially sinister scenario), Rachel states that both Tom and her mother thought she had “an overactive imagination”. The negative connotation of this assessment hints that Rachel is perhaps unreliable, and she seems to tacitly agree with their judgement when she explains she cannot help but wonder about “the other shoe”. Hawkins word choices for the clothing—“discarded” and “abandoned” instead of a more neutral “mislaid”—suggests Rachel’s emotional viewpoint: she sees through the lens of rejection (she’s the lost shoe).[‡] As the train finally moves forward, Rachel desperately tries to focus on her newspaper, suggesting that she is avoiding some emotional trauma even as her mind wanders back to the lost items (the stand-in for herself). At this point, it difficult not to feel some pity for this sad woman.
Having subtly established Rachel’s feelings of abandonment and her unwillingness to address her pain, Hawkins exposes another side to Rachel. On the return trip later that day, Rachel drinks canned gin and tonic (“the taste of my first-ever holiday with Tom”, a man now mentioned twice and likely her “other shoe”), claiming (with a whiff of belligerence) she doesn’t “have to feel guilty about drinking on the train” since it’s Friday. Obviously, she does feel guilty despite her attempts to justify her behavior. Before she states she’ll be facing a beautiful weekend alone, the reader can surmise that Tom left her and she is drinking to cope with her pain.
As the first chapter progresses, the extent of Rachel’s drinking problem (and its role in her relationship’s dissolution) becomes evident: she pretends to go to work so her friend/landlord won’t discover she lost her job, she drunk calls her remarried ex-husband late at night, and recounts her shameful history of violent, drunken arguments. Had Hawkins first shown Rachel’s self-destructive behavior or how she lies and harasses people, readers could have dismissed her as an angry or pathetic drunk (as many characters in the novel do) and failed to see her fragility and remorse. While it’s impossible to overlook Rachel’s failings or trust her judgement, we cannot help but feel sorry for the mess her life has becomes, even as she embroils herself in a missing persons case.
How It’s Told: Narration and Character Voice
Hawkins paces her revelations about Rachel to lets readers appreciate her humanity before discovering her grievous faults in The Girl on the Train. Tan’s approach in The Bonesetter’s Daughter also involves controlling the reader’s early impressions of a difficult character, although Tan uses narration as her tool. LuLing Liu Young is not novel’s protagonist but her daughter is. Since Ruth narrates more than half the novel, her perceptions of their contentious relationship will influence the reader’s opinion of LuLing. Tan, therefore, has LuLing narrate the preface—a tactic that lets LuLing speak in her own voice,[§] without Ruth’s experiences overshadowing hers.
Luling’s account, however, starts as relatively straightforward exposition[**] and she states what she “knows to be true”: her name, those of her two deceased husbands (“our secrets gone with them”), and her daughter’s name along with a brief explanation of how she and her daughter are alike but opposite. While the casual mentions of secrets and possible opposition foreshadow some of the novel’s central problems, LuLing’s interest remains focused on names, in particular the one that eludes her repeated efforts (“a hundred times”) to recall it. Although she seems mildly frustrated (as most people are in such instances), she proceeds to vividly recounts the morning when Precious Auntie (a family member or perhaps her nursemaid) showed her surname to LuLing.
At this point, Tan uses narrative disruptions to strip away LuLing’s collected veneer and destabilize this “truth”. Still unable to recall the name Precious Auntie told her to never forget, LuLing abruptly breaks off her tale mid-sentence and claims she’s reviewed over “a hundred family names” to stir her memory. Earlier, the use of “hundred” seemed to be mere hyperbole; Tan’s repetition here highlights LuLing’s increasing agitation. Mentions of more secrets and other lost items also raise concerns about her memory. LuLing, switching topics again, now shares that she remembered the trunk containing her prized possessions for “so long [she] nearly forgot [she] had them”. When she opens the trunk, she discovers its contents were destroyed by insects. Devastated, she claims she’s lost everything she loved, with her greatest loss being Precious Auntie’s name.
Abandoning her account of “Truth” altogether, LuLing now implores the ghost of Precious Auntie to help her remember their name before asking the deceased woman if she remembers that she is her daughter. This last revelation is particularly astonishing because LuLing referred to another woman as “Mother” in her story about the lost surname. Whether LuLing is conflating the two women or inadvertently revealing who her mother truly is, her anguish at losing pieces of her past as her memory fails is apparent and we cannot help but feel her pain. Tan’s clever use of narration gives readers a glimpse into LuLing’s emotional world and effectively establishes sympathy for her before we meet her as the dissatisfied, argumentative and cantankerous woman Ruth calls mother.
The Core of Empathy
In fiction as with real life, it’s easy to empathize with the trials of those we like. Yet, difficult and troubled characters are perhaps those who need our empathy most, however off-putting they may be. Tan and Hawkins demonstrate how revealing a character’s emotional truth lets readers see past the labels defining them. As writers, our task is to find ways that guide readers to the core of these character’s humanity and challenge them to care.
[*] Hawkins’s novel is told through alternating perspectives of three women.
[‡] Rachel’s mention of “the other shoe” similarly evokes separation since shoes come in pairs, just as mentioning “the feet that belonged in them” also suggests dispossession.
[§] Being able to speak in her own voice is also important because English is not LuLing’s first language.
[**] We later discover that “Truth” is a document that she wrote for Ruth (who cannot read the Chinese calligraphy) some five or six years before the opening chapter and that Ruth hasn’t attempted to translate it yet.
But why haven’t I finished several books I fully intended to read just yet? Simply put, other books beckoned.
Following weeks of temperatures in the 90s and 80s, January’s cold seems distant as I contemplate the resolutions I made in that darker month. The resolutions in question, of course, are reading ones. With more than half the year gone, I reviewed the list of books I planned to read. Surprisingly, I discovered that I read exactly two books listed, with a third started (Beloved by Toni Morrison). A number I might find disappointing, had I not read (and wrote about) several other books since the list’s genesis.
The Power of Other Books
But why haven’t I finished several books I fully intended to read just yet?[*] Simply put, other books beckoned. I belong to online book groups that discuss a few novels every month. These books tend to inspire blog posts, so I place them a bit higher on my reading queue. I also visit my local library to encourage my child’s burgeoning reading habit.[†] Browsing the shelves allows me to find fascinating books I might not have otherwise encountered (The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami).[‡] There’s also my own evolving reading goals: books I want to read for an upcoming trip, books gifted to me, and other projects that pop up (the #readingwomenmonth, to name one).
In the interest of strict honesty, there are a few books I’ve delayed reading or finishing. Whether the book’s density or subject matter required more attention than I could provide, I returned these to the “to-read” stack. For now. Some books I forgot I wanted to read because I made the list so long ago. Other books I put aside because they didn’t suit my reading environment. When I want to read in a car or at the pool,[§] I like reading something that can be interrupted and readily resumed again. And finally, there’s a few books I wanted to see as a movie first, because I suspect I won’t enjoy the movie quite as much if I read the book beforehand (Sorry, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel).[**]
For all that I haven’t yet read, I’m so close enough to achieving the reading goal I set for myself on Goodreads that I will likely increase it. In the spirit of getting there eventually, I’m updating my list with the hope that I get to my unread books—along with several new additions to my list.[††] Included, too, are books I’ve read. Feel free to check links to books I’ve discussed in other posts. As always, happy reading!
When authors choose to use familiar character tropes, they either employ the trope with care, ensuring that the orphaned character’s loss serves a narrative purpose, or they introduce fresh approaches to the trope’s characterization and problems.
Among the common character types that exist in fiction, the orphaned protagonist[*] is one that readily elicits sympathy from readers. Regardless of material circumstances, both the real and perceived disadvantages of parental loss[†] make for excellent storytelling. As author Liz Moore observes, the orphaned character has a “built-in problem, which leads to built-in conflict”. Since her works feature orphans, she worries “whether it is facile to rely on this trope”. The answer to this conundrum lies in how the story is written. When authors choose to use familiar character tropes, they either employ the trope with care, ensuring that the orphaned character’s loss serves a narrative purpose, or they introduce fresh approaches to the trope’s characterization and problems. In the following, I discuss some common features of the orphan trope and provided examples that illustrate how writers make the orphan trope meaningful.
Trope Expectations and Succinct Storytelling
Creating a character that comes with a problem needing resolution, one that readily generates sympathy, also allows writers to streamline their storytelling. As John Mullan explains, “The orphan is above all a character out of place, forced to make his or her own home in the world…set loose from established conventions to face a world of endless possibilities (and dangers).” Since the orphan trope includes these expectations, we don’t need the author to explain why their orphans beg or steal (Ren from the The Good Thief, the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist); we already know they must fend for themselves and possess few options for doing so. Childhood (mis)adventures, too, are more readily undertaken without parental objection, giving writers incentive to remove parents from the plot.[‡] However, such reasons alone are insufficient for orphaning a character. Julie Just points to the recent trend of young adult fiction replacing dead parents with absentee, inattentive, or incompetent parents,[§] a move that still affords young characters both opportunity and reason to adventure or “act out”. Similarly, characters can experience social isolation or loneliness without being orphaned. Therefore, employing the orphan trope must serve a greater narrative purpose than mere convenience.
All the Living
In All the Living, C. E. Morgan’s thoughtful approach to the orphan trope lets the story focus on her young lovers and quietly makes Aloma’s orphaning central to the novel’s conflict as it explores how varied the experience of loss can be. As an orphan (now grown), Aloma can more readily ignore social convention when she moves in with boyfriend Orren to help him run his family’s farm following the sudden deaths of his brother and widowed mother.[**] While Aloma’s childhood loss avoids uninteresting complications parents would add to the plot, it also leaves her unprepared for Orren’s grief and how it alters him. Unlike Orren, she cannot recall her parents and experiences their deaths as an absence. Because Aloma never had a home, she cannot empathize with Orren when he refuses to either reside in or rent the house he once shared with his deceased loved ones and they quarrel. Orren also misunderstands her behavior, finding her tendency to “look outward” infuriating because he forgets or fails to see that her actions reveal an orphan’s need for connection. In Morgan’s hands, sharing a history of loss prevents these lovers from finding common ground. Thus, their losses generate more misunderstanding than they provide comfort.
Of course, literary orphans lose more than family when their parents die. For many orphans, parental loss also affects their material, emotional, and social support. However, their new “homes” rarely offer respite or welcome orphaned children—even when they are kin.[††] The orphan’s quest to find acceptance arises in response to this rejection. The trope’s difficulty here lies with the reasons the child isn’t wanted. Literature happens to be littered with cruel, prejudiced or indifferent guardians that range from rotten relations (stepparents, aunts and/or uncles) to unkind orphanage staff. Failing this (or even in conjunction with it), the other common difficulty that necessitates the child’s quest for belonging involves the guardian’s financial distress (Aloma, Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables). Of note, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, and Aloma all lived with aunts and/or uncles before departing to a boarding school. And Jane and Harry both lived with guardian(s) who begrudged them their upkeep, even though they could readily afford their expenses. While some literary orphans manage to find acceptance through self-improvement and changing the status quo (Mary Lennox, The Secret Garden), most do not. Therefore, inventive approaches to writing these characters’ unhappy circumstances is critical when using these common themes.
The Harry Potter series
In the Harry Potter’s series, Vernon and Petunia Dursley’s have few qualms about expressing their displeasure with Harry’s presence in their lives. Rowling, however, complicates their distaste for Harry by rooting it in intolerance and jealousy. Vernon Dursley rather straightforwardly dislikes people unlike himself and wants to curb any magical ability Harry displays, prompting him to take extraordinary measures to prevent Harry from learning he’s a wizard. Petunia Dursley’s motivations, however, are more nuanced. Her sister, Lily Potter, is regularly described in glowing terms (beautiful, smart, kind, etc.), making Petunia one of her rare detractors. She denounces Lily as a freak but in the same scene indicates that their parents admired Lily’s magical ability, exposing her envy. Petunia obviously feels overlooked because her young sister managed to be remarkable in yet another way. She transfers her resentment to Harry, spoiling her son while denying Harry material comforts to ensure Dudley never feels as she did. Regardless of how much trouble Harry causes her, she begrudgingly allows him to stay, suggesting that some lingering duty or love for her sister remains.
Ambiguous Identity and Transformation
Mullan’s observation that orphans are “out of place” gives them the freedom to reinvent themselves and discard their old lives. Although their unfixed social status allows them to transcend their social circumstances, this ambiguity also makes maligning them easy. The same orphan can be classified as both dangerous or brave—incidentally, terms used to describe both Harry Potter and archvillain Lord Voldemort. The orphan’s ambiguous status also provides ample opportunity to create and resolve conflicts in the narrative (a boon for developing story arcs), but such volatility should have a goal (eg, revealing character). Conferring wealth as a reward to the orphaned protagonist, for example, ensures a happy ending but feels unearned when a previously unknown relation exists solely to enrich said orphan by dying.[‡‡]
After Jane Eyre endures a punishment that causes her to faint, the kind apothecary caring for her learns that her aunt’s mistreatment caused her collapse. He offers Jane an opportunity to attend Lowood Institution, a school that educates poor girls. The promise of a fresh start, however, soon sours when her Aunt Reed unjustly characterizes her as a liar to the school director. Accepting Aunt Reed’s word without question, he assures them that the staff will be told about Jane’s wicked behavior. Beyond creating conflict and generating future difficulties for Jane, Brontë’s goal here is to provide Jane with a defining moment. With this latest bit of malice, Aunt Reed finally pushes Jane into finally speaking up for herself, an ability she needs to develop since she has no one else to defend her. Jane grows as a character, no longer willing to suffer slights.
While the orphan trope has its stock characters, genre expectations, and standard plot lines, writers who make these moments purposeful transform an old story into a meaningful discussion about belonging and identity, something every young protagonist (parents or not) considers as they age into adulthood. And that conversation is an interesting one, however many times we have it, when more considered approaches make the story feel new again.
[†] Contrary to expectation, some orphans prosper without at least one of their parents (eg, Huckleberry Finn). Being spared parental mistreatment, however, neither offsets nor lessens the child’s experience of loss.
[‡] For much the same reason, most orphan characters are only children.
[§] The trend here is also somewhat practical given that pandemics are less common than they once were.
[**] Of note, Aloma lives in a prevalently conservative area of rural Kentucky during the 1980s, where couples were discouraged from living together before marriage.
[††] Rose from Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins is a notable exception where guardian and extended family alike welcome her.
[‡‡] While one can argue that Jane needs to become wealthy to attain equal footing with Mr. Rochester, he already had no objections to marrying her without money and his injuries better serve this purpose.