Yesterday, at the VA’s Fort Harrison in Helena, I turned anxious thoughts to how illness makes characters sympathetic. Or does it? Happily, my husband is fine, but I’m still pondering how authors have given us ailing characters and how readers receive them.
Start with opposites. Take Tiny Tim from Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, he of “God bless us, every one!” fame. Readers love him. But, wait! With Richard III, Shakespeare created a hateful character, twisted in mind and body. The guy drowns little princes in wine vats. Modern readers, perhaps unlike less enlightened Elizabethan audiences, love Tim and hate Richard not because of their infirmities, but solely because of their behavior.
But, for a protagonist readers can truly empathize with, I give you the title character of Ben Fountain’s, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Billy has a pounding migraine that plagues him through the entire day the novel covers. Who hasn’t been there? Billy is part of Bravo Company, soldiers whose heroic firefight, caught by an embedded reporter on video, results in their being invited to be part of the Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day halftime program. It’s a surreal day, with Billy responding to everyone who asks if he needs anything if he could please have an Advil. Only when the day is winding down, the soldiers to be returned to Iraq, does Billy finally get the bottle, which he shares down the bleacher with the rest of Bravo Company. By then the reader has been begging, “Somebody give that kid something for his headache.
Sure, we shed tears over the deaths of innocents, and love to hate bad guys regardless of their appearance, but if I want a character my readers can truly identify with, I’ll just bestow an itch, a blister, or a relentless headache.