By Foday Mannah
In my early days as a teacher, we ran a book group for senior pupils. We decided to choose novels that were quite diverse and examined various aspects of life and the world we lived in. We met fortnightly to have loose discussions on aspects of plot, setting, historical context etc. However, it soon became clear that characterisation was the aspect that drove most of our discussions, whilst obviously not being mutually exclusive from the other components of the texts.
One of our decisions was to have a Scottish novel on our list; we therefore chose Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar. Warner’s lucid and riveting presentation of his eponymous character grabbed the imaginations of us all from the get go especially as her actions were warped and highly unconventional – upon realising that her boyfriend has committed suicide leaving behind the manuscript for a novel that is to be published posthumously, Morvern simply disposes of the body in a macabre manner before affixing her name to the manuscript, thereby claiming the novel as her own. In essence therefore, characterisation drives plot as our young readers were justifiably appalled at Morvern’s actions whilst also being fascinated at how the rest of her life unfolds.
Another of the books we studied was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart which examines the advent of colonialism and the catastrophic effect it has on Igbo society in Nigeria. The protagonist is Okonkwo, whose personal tragedy aptly mirrors the disintegration of his society. Again, Achebe’s etching of Okonkwo is mesmerising – the man who achieved personal success through sheer determination and hard work, whilst also being consumed by a crippling insecurity that sees him bearing a hand in the harrowing murder of Ikemefuna, the young boy from another village who lived in his household.
And then we also read Atonement by Ian McEwan with Briony Tallis the character who was extensively analysed in our discussions; she received little sympathy from our young group several of whom dismissed her as a devious brat whose actions ruined lives.
In high school and indeed university one of the key components of studying literature often involved analysing characters. A university lecturer from back in the day often spoke about “the growth and development of characters.” Fundamentally, characters change and evolve over the duration of the text and are often presented as being complex and multi-faceted. One of the first assignments we did for said lecturer involved comparing the protagonists from the novels Jane Eyre and Tess of the d’Ubervilles. Both Jane and Tess made for engrossing analysis and one observation was that both characters literally travel through different locations as they “grow and develop.” Indeed even Briony Tallis the “precocious brat” from our book group discussions evolves into somebody much more mature and repentant.
My colleague Lu Anne Stewart threw brilliant insight on how characters are developed in television programmes thereby engaging audiences whilst providing thrill and drama. My mind immediately went to Walter White from the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad as a perfect example of the riveting transformation of a character across seasons. Another recent favourite with the pupils is Stranger Things which again represents a masterclass in the establishment and development of characters whose lives and circumstances are complex.
I have spoken in the past of plucking memorable individuals from my past as inspiration for characters in fiction. Good and well-etched characters stay with you not exclusively for the things they do but more so for their emotional resonance whilst engaging with the environment they find themselves in. In essence, they could simply tie their shoe laces rather than leap out of a helicopter whilst still remaining memorable and relevant.
And so I continue to stockpile characters from my past: Zagallo, the rogue soldier who parked twelve vehicles he had looted from hapless civilians outside his house during our country’s civil war; Pa Lamina, the landlord who would evict tenants from his properties for not greeting his many wives in the mornings; Bernard, a classmate who memorised every page of every literature text we studied in boarding school to the extent that he was paraded around all the dormitories to narrate excerpts from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar!
Thanks for reading and have a nice day. 😊