Reading Versus Watching: Episodic Characters

I recently finished Don Quixote (in Edith Grossman's translation,

which I found superb), though it isn't quite fair to compare Don Quixote to my normal television regime—I might as well be comparing it to Citizen Kane or The Godfather. Come to think of it, it'd be unfair to compare Citizen Kane or The Godfather to Don Quixote. However, one thing that surprised me about Cervantes' classic was its episodic nature. It doesn't have the overarching narratives that have been been imposed on it by countless adaptations in other media. Instead it moves smoothly from one vignette to another, much like a television show. And what a television show! Over the course of the book I fell in love with the Don and his squire, Sancho Panza, as much as I have with any TV cast, and (spoiler warning—you may want to skip to the next paragraph here, J) in the end, when Quixote dies, I was really upset and angry, like when Bambi's mother was killed, or when they shot Old Yeller. I think if I ever read it again, I'm going to stop at the last chapter and let Quixote and Sancho live happily ever after.

What's interesting to me is the degree to which we love our fictional characters. Some critics have even suggested that we think of television characters as our "friends," a phenomenon that seems cannily gone after by the sitcom of the same name. For me, the TV cast that I feel the most strongly about is the gang of "Northern Exposure," whose DVD's have steadily found their way onto my Netflix queue. Of course, there's a nostalgia trip involved here, since "Northern Exposure" peaked during my adolescence, but the show is notable for many other reasons. For one, I think it was one of only three truly magical realist American television shows (setting aside shows like "Wonder Falls" which were extremely brief in their runs and didn't make much of an impact). The other two are "Twin Peaks" and "Lost." Second, and this almost unheard of on American television, "Northern Exposure" was almost completely character driven, with relatively little in the way of plot and nothing like the white-knuckled cliff-hangers of "Lost." And yet, it was never boring, because its characters were complex and weird and fascinating.

For those of you who haven't seen it, the premise of Northern Exposure was that New York City urbanite Dr. Joel Fleischman received financial aid for med school from the state of Alaska, but as a condition he then had to practice medicine in a small town in Alaska for a period of four years. Initially, the show capitalized on that fish-out-of-water premise, but as the show progressed the supporting cast began to take over. Part of what made these characters so interesting was that each of them had to have their own reasons for being in Alaska in the first place—it is, after all, a pretty remote part of the world. And so you had everything from the former astronaut who bought up a lot of land with the idea of creating the "Alaskan Riviera;" the Canadian fur-trapper who settled down and fell in love; the foundling half-Indian who was raised communally by the local tribe; the native tribes-people themselves who liked to throw tomatoes at white people on Thanksgiving in revenge for taking their land; and my favorite, Adam, the infrequently seen, misanthropic gourmet chef who hides out in the bush with his wife and otherwise avoids human contact. The point here being that you don't necessarily need an interesting plot, or any plot at all, as long as you have interesting characters.

But then, it's a hackneyed cliché of writing guides that characters drive your story. These writing guides often proceed to tell us that interesting characters have a "quirk," the most over-used of which is a limp, and then they give us formulas for creating "three-dimensional" characters. What this has lead to is an avelanche of characters with "quirks" who strain for formulaic realism, part of the cookie-cutter method of writing typified by so much of Hollywood's output. [For an example of the anemic nature of this technique, see Heidi Julavitz's novel The Mineral Palace which is chock full of boring, cliché characters made marginally more interesting by the introduction of quirks—e.g. the heroine's obsession with numbers. In the end, the device becomes so visible as a device that it has no effect at all other than to distract the reader from the story. —JFQ] Yet most interesting traits of fictional characters are usually the least by-the-numbers. For instance, when Don Quixote tells us of Dulcinea, the woman he's never met but for whose honor he's repeatedly risked his life, that he only loves her because it's proper for knights to have a great love. This is one part of a complex character whose attitude is one the one hand completely self-consistent, and yet captivating and unusual and, even hundreds of years later, novel. Part of the pleasure of the novel is watching each successive layer of Quixote's character reveal itself and grow.

That Quixote and Sancho's characters are the true driving force of the novel is illustrated by the fact that in the first part of Don Quixote there are two "interpolated novels", mini-novels that digress from the two main characters. Cervantes himself comments in the second part (published some ten years later) that people didn't like the interpolated novels and wanted to stay with the main characters. This is not, I think, because the interpolated novels were somehow less well-written.

Part of the problem with a lot of popular fiction today is the emphasis on plot over character. Everything's about getting a cliffhanger on every page, and what often results are characters that are thin at best and formulaic at worst. Part of the problem with a lot of literary fiction is an emphasis on language that only requires the characters to sit around and be described in pretty ways. I think there's a lesson here to be learned from television and episodic novels like Don Quixote. People didn't keep watching "Northern Exposure" week after week because of hanging plot-lines; there weren't any. Nor did they keep watching "Seinfeld" for that reason. Even plot-heavy shows like "Lost" wouldn't be successful if it didn't have characters like John or Mr. Eko or Kate who are both complex and strange and in some way continually evolving. Because in general, good fiction has good enough characters that if you hit the reset button on the plot, or if you wrote about or filmed them in different ways, you'd still want to watch.

Bottom Notes:

  • I watched the some of the first episode of "Tuesday Night Book Club" because of the title, but stopped when I realized the show had nothing to do with books. It's a reality show about rich white women who apparently meet for a weekly book club, but right off they all admit they haven't actually read the book for that week and spend the rest of the show complaining about their privileged lives. The title should change to "Tuesday Night Group Therapy."
  • Just finished reading Wet Asphalt's second review copy book, And to Think He Kissed Him on Lorimer Street by Richard Grayson. Expect a review soon. The first review copy we received was The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde, which will also be reviewed soon. If you would like to send us books to review, email us at info@wetasphalt.com.