Monday, July 25, 2011

Strength of Character

Very rarely, when I finish reading a novel or watching a movie, I walk away with a hugely pleasurable feeling that is equal parts contentment and excitement.  It’s a visceral, robust sense of well-being, hard to describe.  After years of thinking about it, I finally realized that it comes from having spent time with a character who is both 1) like me in some fundamental way and 2) relaxed in her own skin, happy to be herself.

The first character I remember eliciting this feeling in me was Annika Settergren, the little girl who lives next door to Pippi Longstocking.  You’d think I would have preferred Pippi—a much more fully developed and interesting character—but I didn’t.   Pippi had unattractive hair, for one thing.  And I found the name ‘Pippi’ alarming.  I recognized in Annika a quality I saw in myself: the ability to take pleasure in quirky, exciting people without actually being—or wanting to be—quirky and exciting herself.  It was her presence in the books that compelled me to reread them many times over the course of my childhood.

I think I had a seven-year-old lesbian crush on Karen Dotrice, the young British actress who played Jane Banks in Mary Poppins.  (She was also the non-feline lead in The Three Lives of Thomasina.)  I was utterly taken with her.  Another blonde, but this one had a British accent and spectacular clothes.  I remember longing in some desperate, wordless way to be her, and feeling gloomy on the drive home from the theater as my own tedious, mid-sixties, suburban life in California slowly came back to me.

Other characters who’ve had this powerful effect on me:

--Mary Clancy (played by Haley Mills) in The Trouble With Angels,

--Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,

--Annie Hall (played by Diane Keaton),

--Sarah Cooper (played by Glenn Close) in The Big Chill,

--Joan Wilder (played by Kathleen Turner) in Romancing the Stone,

--Harriet the Spy,

--Isabelle Grossman (played by Amy Irving) in Crossing Delancey.

I could go on.

I just finished a book (We Were the Mulvaneys, by Joyce Carol Oates) that offered up no character with whom I could identify in this way, which is to say, no character who is at home with herself.  Writing a character like this is different from writing a character who is likeable or sympathetic.

Does this make sense?  If so, which characters in books or movies have especially appealed to you, and why?   I’m really curious.

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