Thursday, April 23, 2015

Precocious Characters

Remember in high school, that one character in your group who said the funniest things? He was intelligent in amusing and surprising ways and always had a range of interests outside everyone else’s. Maybe he had a passion for the French revolution and went around shouting Liberté, égalité, fraternité at strange moments; maybe he owned a vinyl collection of Howlin’ Wolf, long before it was cool (again) to have vinyl. This guy would say the darnedest things, things that would be repeated over wine coolers for months to come. He was eccentric, precocious in a too-colorful-for-this-world kind of way.

I think for entertainment purposes, we enjoy the quirky intellectualism and verbal repartee you find on any episode of Big Bang Theory or Modern Family; maybe part of the enjoyment comes from imagining the what ifs. What if I were able to banter like that? What if I were able to remember swathes of information about astrophysics yet still be able to whip up a batch of beef vindaloo from memory for my friends? What if your speech was not peppered with ums, yeahs, and okays? What if, for each time you found yourself confronted, challenged or provoked, you actually SAID the witty comeback, instead of thinking about it two hours later?

We all know the precocious child character from TV, books and movies. A kid who is wiser than his years, advanced beyond anything his current elementary school can handle, always ready with a smart ass remark or aphorism. Well, I’d argue that precociousness isn’t just for the young, and it isn’t just for real-life people When the characters in a book are too eccentric, too perfectly verbose, it discourages true communion with the reader. At least for me. It’s like they’re as polished and ultimately, unrealistic, as a model in a photo shoot. Lately, I’ve read several novels (you know the type--fun, bright fonts, punchy titles, oodles of sales) that had 1) page-turning plot, 2) apt metaphors about modern life, 3) remarkable situations, 4) adroit, expert construction, 5) quirky characters, and 6) repartee galore; yet, inasmuch as I enjoyed the reading experience, I never forgot for one moment that I was reading a book, about people who didn’t really exist.

You may be thinking that it has something to do with a realistic setting but really, that doesn’t matter. Believability of plot? Nope, my suspension of disbelief mode is fully functional. It’s something to do with the characters, which is, for me, what books are mostly about. I have to think it involves precociousness. You say: But there are very eccentric people who speak in very eccentric ways. There are genius scientists and brilliant teenagers and people who quote constantly from literature. Maybe I just don’t know any, you’re thinking. But I don’t know any time travelers or golems or statesmen either, but I’ve seen them breathe and walk off the page. When characters are too clever, too funny, too insightful, too precocious—it’s fun to read but ultimately, I can’t believe they are real.

What types of things hold you back from loving a book you like very much? What ingredients are in your novel-reading special sauce? What aspects make you keep your distance?

1 comment:

  1. When a book makes me work too hard to really "get it", I usually give it up. One choice of our book club several years ago was a strange experience for many of us. The first 75 - 100 pages were torture! I gave up, but peer pressure made me go back to it. All of a sudden, it's like someone else took up the pen and the story came to life. I didn't want it to end. But then....the first author took over and the finish was dismal, abrupt, unsatisfying. Very strange. I don't think I can qualify what makes a book work for me. I know what I like when I find it.


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka