Help! I’ve fallen in love with a fictional character! How can characterization affect your reading experience?

We’ve all been there.

You decide to stay home on a Friday night eating entirely too much Chunky Monkey ice cream while reading Pride and Prejudice. You sit in bed, rocking second day hair in your old track warm-up, dreaming to be whisked away by a tall, dark, and handsome man with a disturbing past, albeit an impressive bankroll. The writer inside of you says, “Stop, this is so cliché.” But what about these literary men do we love? All feministic qualms aside, if she had been more informed, would Elizabeth Bennet still want to bring one of these guys home to her dad? If you are in distress over a hardcover hunk, never fear! Things are about to get real (unlike your fictional boyfriend) as I analyze how famous literature portrays the many forms of the ideal man, and along the way I will prove how märchen monogamy is a danger to every literary junkie.

Let me be clear, this is not a personality quiz. There are patterns to everything, especially in literature. If you’re like me, you have read an arsenal of books. I spend more time getting to know fictional characters than actual human beings. This said, it is easy to start seeing the similarities between literary heartthrobs. As I read, I get to know these characters; I am introduced to their family, see where they are from, learn what they like, and I discover their flaws.  By chapter four, F. Scott Fitzgerald had me sold on Gatsby. A guy that is personable, hardworking, and might I add rich? Maybe I didn’t trust him (I mean, the guy said he was from San Francisco but also from the Midwest), but Gatsby could also just be bad at math, because things just didn’t add up! If our favorite male characters were newsletters, you could sign me up today.

Let’s play a game. I’ll compare three famous men from literature: Heathcliff, Mr. Edward Rochester, and Fitzwilliam Darcy. My first contestant, Heathcliff, is arguably (without spoilers) the biggest hopeless romantic of all time.  In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff undergoes your classic “so not to so hot” transformation. He ditches his rough, gypsy street-look for that of “a tall, athletic, well-formed man” who possessed “a half-civilised ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire.” Emily Brönte equips Heathcliff with an attitude problem, uncontrollably acting out, enraged by both love and hate. Heathcliff is an enzyme, catalyzing your reactions to the plot. His characterization engages the reader (notice which verb form I use) to feel the way that he feels. Next we have Mr. Edward Rochester, an unconventional beau. He enjoys making Jane cry, he’s bossy, and he’s a sight for sore eyes. To say the least, Rochester would have a difficult time making an online dating profile. Readers fear for Jane, as Rochester is incapable of having a normal relationship. Honestly, I think the reason I eat up Jane Eyre is because of Rochester’s dysfunctional personality. He’s a total beast! The guy makes excuses for himself, and the only way to cure his blindness to the world is by actually going blind! If that doesn’t sound like your typical guy then I don’t know what to tell you. Lastly, we have Fitzwilliam Darcy. Over the years, women continue to be obsessed with the hubris lingering on the surface of sweet Darcy. (Bridget Jones’s Diary and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies will forever hold a special place in my heart.) Once you continue to read, torn over Elizabeth and Darcy’s mutual stubbornness, you discover Darcy is not just noble by birth, he’s a good guy all around. I can’t tell you how many times a guy has done something idiotic, but I can tell you how many times one wrote a letter professing their love. (The answer is zero.)

If you don’t believe me, The Art of Manliness divulges into the world of masculine archetypes, coining guys like this for their “emotion, feeling, idealism, and sensuality”. Beware, my book loving friends, effective male characterization is a technique that causes pages to quickly turn, making things taste sweeter, sound more kind, or feel softer- all from the comfort of your Nook.

Perhaps the archetype is not to blame,” you say.  “Maybe the authors are the ones at fault for my chronic literary anxiety,” argues anotherCalm down, you’re both right. Here’s a list of literary men we love. They all have something important in common: life spews from them. Readers are lost in the wanderlust of these characters, wanting to drink from their cup, ignoring everything that will come after. We want to share the warmth from their light, and seek to follow them into the shadows of their personality and past. Let’s be real ladies, we keep guys around for our enjoyment. Authors continue to reinvent ideal men to reflect culture and time. If you want to dispute this, have you ever heard of a Renaissance man? Masculine characterization is just that- the creation of men who can take the pressure, reinvent all expectations, and at the end of the day, have the ability to make us swoon.


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