Today we welcome back Justin Murphy. In both his fiction and nonfiction, Justin explores many themes in his work, including probing into the darkness of pure evil and exploring obscure figures often forgotten in entertainment. Today he talks about the relationship between readers and the characters they’re drawn to. Learn more about Justin and his books at his Facebook Author Page.
Readers Want Characters Who Are Both Personal and Universal
There are old adages many of us have heard time and time again, that we want to read about characters we can ’’relate to’’ or ’’identify with.’’ Yet psychoanalyst Carl Jung also once said, ’’What is most personal is most universal,’’ and this adds a deeper layer. In such cases, it refers to those of us who read books and explore characters who remind us of who we are inside, or someone we know. This works two ways, as writers project something from their personal lives into their fiction, and readers find even the smallest detail connects with an aspect of their ordeals. Five examples of these come to mind.
Jean Louise ’’Scout’’ Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird is a little girl in 1930’s Alabama where racial tensions are no secret. Her father Atticus is an attorney who must defend Tom Robinson, an African American, accused of raping and beating eighteen-year-old Mayella Ewell. It’s based on author Harper Lee’s childhood and her relationship with her father, a real-life lawyer defending a man in a similar case, in the same period and region. Yet the book resonated with readers due to the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement and worsening racial tensions down South.
Another is Douglas Spaulding from Dandelion Wine, who sees his native Green Town, Illinois as a very magical place. Despite being lumped into the genre of science fiction, many young boys of the 1950’s who read this also viewed their upbringing in this way. A wistful nostalgia, if not an imaginative place, in contrast to the harsh realities they later discovered in adulthood. Author Ray Bradbury himself felt this way about his birthplace Waukeagan, Illnois where he spent his formative years.
Despite his reputation in the horror genre, Stephen King also provides a few examples of these. In his novella, The Body, he focuses on the journey of four adolescent boys as they set out to find, you guessed it, a dead body. Many readers had the same ordeals as these kids, such as having similar friends or confronting bullies. With their adult lives taking very different directions. His epic novel IT and the story “Sometimes They Come Back” are more extreme examples of this.
Keep in mind, these characters were from 1950’s Maine towns, such as Castle Rock and Derry. So was Stephen King. In fact the incident with the dead body being hit by a train turned out to be based on one he witnessed as a small child. It is believed the future horror author came home so traumatized he remembered nothing, and his mother relayed to him what someone explained to her.
As for adulthood, King provides a couple examples of this as well. The characters Jack Torrance from The Shining and Dr. Louis Creed of Pet Sematary prove to be symbols of this latter stage in life. The former is a recovering alcoholic reeling from an abusive childhood at the hands of his father. Later projecting said abuse onto his son Danny and becomes the seasonal caretaker at The Overlook Hotel. The supernatural happenings at this locale submerge him once more in the alcoholism and abuse he tried to steer himself and his family away from. What readers haven’t gone through some sort of family dysfunction or got absorbed into their own personal hell? Stephen King later admitted his own alcohol and drug issues and at one point being a little too “hands on’’ with his kids.
Dr. Louis Creed, of the latter novel, faces death in three ways. The hit and run accident involving his daughter Ellie’s cat Church, a similar incident killing his baby son Gage, and his wife Rachel’s murder at the end. He buries each of them in an Indian burial ground, but they return with disastrous and zombifying results.
Readers deal with this every day. Who hasn’t lost a beloved pet, a child too young, or a spouse after so many years? There are moments they wish to bring them back but realize this is living in the past and are better off moving on.
I’ve drafted, revised, and edited a yet to be released series of novellas entitled The Alana Harrell Mysteries about a single mother investigating missing child cases while dealing with her two special needs sons. Writing these to show how single mothers struggle balancing work and family, letting both them and disabled readers know they are not alone. I was raised by a single mother caring for me with my mild case of Cerebral Palsy and my autistic brother.