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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Character, not Caricature, Part 3 - Memorable Characters

I thought I'd share some memorable paper people with you today, and talk a little about why I think they work. And I hope you'll return the favor!

Ransom, from C.S.Lewis' "Out of the Silent Planet", is probably my all-time best-remembered character. He's introduced as an academic on a walking tour of England, only to be kidnapped and taken to Mars by two rather unpleasant men. They intend to give him to what they think is the ruler of Mars as a human sacrifice, in exchange for the right to take away gold (though one of them has a more sinister motive).

Ransom is very much everyman, a 'good chap' who is 'taken' into the story only through rather resentfully promising to look for the half-witted man who the villain's hired as an assistant - by interfering, Ransom takes his place. Arriving on Mars in a home-made spaceship (vaguely described), he escapes from his captors and finds himself with Hobson's choice - stay alone and lost in an utterly alien land, or approach the locals - to whom he was to be offered as a sacrifice.

What makes Ransom so memorable is, I think, his very human reaction to his predicament. He is by turns angry, bitter, terrified, hopeful. When given choices, he makes the ones with which I can identify - even if they're wrong. His behavior's always within the framework of his character; there's never a "Why did he do that?" There's little physical description - we know he's middle-aged, of average size and fitness.

How did Lewis do it? My feeling is that he followed the dictum, "write what you know"; Ransom IS Lewis. Thus, he didn't talk down to, or try to limit his character, and by knowledge of his own foibles avoided aggrandizing Ransom. A modest man, creating a modest hero - so hard to do, but what a beautiful gift for us all!

(And yes, the name Ransom is symbolic of Christ, being a ransom for us - he takes the place of another as a sacrifice, albeit unwillingly. The story, and Ransom's theological arc,  continues in "Perelandra" and "That Hideous Strength".)

Captain Philip Queeg, from Herman Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny" - well, I said memorable, not beloved! Queeg is introduced as a pleasant individual when he takes command of the fictional destroyer/minesweeper USS Caine in WW2. Yet there's something strange about him - on this first meeting, in conversation with the commanding officer he's relieving, he is detached to the point of making a totally irrelevant comment about the weather, when the previous captain is telling Queeg about the crew he'll inherit.

We never get inside Queeg's head. Everything we learn about him is observed, and as the book goes on what we see is almost comically horrible. Queeg is clearly not cut out to be a captain, and his erratic behavior makes this clear to his crew, the readers...everyone but the US Navy, and he remains in command. The downward spiral of a personality buckling under pressure is relieved from time to time by genuine humanity, and by "I might have done that" moments.

In the end, after the climactic mutiny', the trail of the mutineers completes the destruction of Queeg, and then resurrects him as a sort of hero. Queeg is in some ways a classical tragic hero - a man with a fatal flaw, which destroys him because his subordinates can't bring themselves to support the rank and office, if not the man.

Why does Queeg live so vividly? Wouk treats him, always, with respect. It would have been easy to make Queeg the butt of every malediction, but he's not that...whenever the reader really grows to hate the guy, Wouk gives us a reason to take pause. Wouk didn't like Queeg, I think...but he respected him.

What about you? Anyone you like, and want to share?

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