Recently I have been working on a character’s family tree. Many of the cousins, aunts and uncles, etc. will never play a significant role but still they need a name, background and at least some personality. As I’ve done this I’ve naturally thought of people I know and people I’ve observed as well as characters that stand out in books. What makes Milo from the book GREENGLASS HOUSE so true? What about Cather from FANGIRL or Levi from the same book? I swear I’ve stood next to Joe Ledger in a Starbucks line.
That led me to ponder a writer whose books I have loved but who doesn’t like people from Pennsylvania (where I live). This is fine in a character, foibles can fill them out, make them less like a paper person in a book and more like someone who might sit next to you at the movies and filch your popcorn. However, this dislike of people from Pennsylvania has been said by so many different characters in so many of her books that it finally started to poke me in the brain. Instead of thinking “Doesn’t like Pennsylvania, how odd of this character.” I now find myself thinking “Yeah, yeah, Pennsylvania is bad, get over it.” For a while I skipped over those parts of the book. For the last year I’ve taken a break from this writer all together.
In the scope of the world ‘dislikes Pennsylvanians’ isn’t even on the Evil List (which, in my opinion, contains bigotry, misogyny, religious hatred, etc.). It’s on the Slightly Annoying List that also contains ‘doesn’t throw used tissues away’. But, as they say, it’s the thought that counts. There are plenty of characters in books who are evil, sometimes that’s the point. There are heroes who condone things that many readers would find repulsive. The world changes and though characters in books don’t change, the way we think of them does. Such as in Little House On The Prairie when the Ingalls family is saved by a black doctor yet in Little Town On The Prairie, Pa participates in a Minstrel show and Laura and the whole family laughs at him in black face. When it was written probably a majority of readers saw no problem with this but years passed and as a young reader I remember thinking ‘Hey, this isn’t fair.’ And in doing that I re-examined myself and my attitudes.
The best books make us think, the best characters (and I don’t mean ‘socially acceptable’ but ‘so well written if they ask for a drink on the page you’re halfway through getting them a glass of water before you realize they don’t have a mouth’) crawl inside your head and shake things about. One of the best I’ve ever read was a demon who had no idea he was a demon in a humans body. Since this is a major spoiler (he doesn’t realize this until the end of the book) I won’t give the title in case I’m hunted down by a righteously annoyed populace.
I don’t want to read books where the characters never challenge me. However, when creating a character, an author should look to the small things that their characters say, because others are listening. And some of us are from Pennsylvania.