Watch that character jump! From page to life
How does an author grasp a reader into their story; what is it that makes a fictional construct truly great? For me, it’s when an author makes a character real, believable and relatable. When you step into their world and see things from their eyes.
The story of ‘M’ in The Itch is one of tragedy. Her life starts off promising: university graduate, blossoming career, married young, two beautiful children. It all sounds great… Then bam! Her life starts collapsing around her, piece by piece.
Firstly, her marriage starts to ‘disintegrate’ as Atul Gawande puts it so eloquently.
But she and her husband began fighting. There were betrayals.
She lost her home, began drinking and met someone else.
After a while, he brought some drugs home, and she tried them. The drugs got harder.
She contracted HIV, no longer saw her children, and was not able to work.
By all accounts, her life appeared bleak. And Gawande represents this with tone and emotion. He has the ability to state something simply, with so much feeling. He uses short, straightforward sentences that say so much more than a long winding paragraph. His point is clearly heard – without unnecessary words.
After a bout of shingles on ‘M’’s scalp (a HIV side effect), she begins to feel an itch constantly:
She had two good, quiet years in which she began rebuilding her life. Then she got the itch…“I felt like my inner self, like my brain itself, was itching,” she says. And it took over her life just as she was starting to get it back.
Gawande masters at drawing empathy and understanding from a reader. The dialogue, for example, bridges the gap for readers to connect with ‘M’’s plight. Her voice and words add to the realism of the situation – as if she is speaking directly to us.
Also, the ‘itch’ is virtually given its own persona in Atul’s writing. It becomes the enemy and causes ‘M’ (the protagonist) to scratch through her own skull, into her brain.
The use of the letter ‘M’, rather than a name supplies a sense of mystery, anonymity. This can serve to catch attention, without putting a reader at a distance. I personally enjoy an enthralling comic book with a masked superhero. That sense of mysterious identity, and living vicariously through the character. Anonymity allows you to say what you want, how you want. And that is how ‘M’’s story is told.
“The Itch” painted such a vivid picture in my mind of ‘M’’s life that I simply had to read on. Partly that is because humans are terribly curious creatures; but it is also an art for written word to cause such a physical reaction. Very effective methods, by an unforgettable author: and a character is brought to life.
GAWANDE, A. 2009. The Itch, New York, The Best American.