Written by: John Irving Reason why he’s great: Contrasting yet totally character specific qualities.
Lots of writers use humour to make a character likeable. I sure do. (Or try.) But with Owen Meany, Irving has given us a thoroughly likeable character who uses no quips or sarcasm – who in fact, hates jokes and is perfectly literally and yet, I love him.
How? In my opinion its because Irving has given us a character whose character traits are so specific to him and rooted in Owen’s essential nature. Irving goes beyond any “first impulse” – for example if he’s small he must be meek. Or if he’s serious, he must not understand humour. It’s fine to go towards the obvious in our first drafts. But the craft is to move past those impulses. Humans are surprising and contrary and that’s what makes us all unique and fascinating. As writers, we need to go there with our characters as well. Owen Meany continually surprises, perhaps because our expectations about who he should be are thwarted at every turn.
The Importance of creating contrasting qualities in a character cannot be stressed enough. In Owen Meany, we have a guy who is totally solemn and yet is a figure of mirth to others around him. He is a small figure but with through sheer force of will, manipulates events around him to suit his purposes. His size and his nature, at odds with each other, work together to realize this absolutely unique and totally memorable guy. At no point does Irving veer into stereotype with Owen Meany. Each character quality is uniquely and specifically wrought.
This tiny figure is a giant of man, shepparding us through the best of humanity’s qualities – loyalty, determination, dignity, and faith. Not just in a religious sense but an absolute certainty of belief in those he loves.
Owen Meany is the perfect straightman and foil in events so comedic they make me cry with laughter and at the heart of other events so dramatic they do too. Love or hate this book, this small male with his cartoon voice is unforgettable.
And isn’t that what we want from our characters? To live forever in readers’ memories without prompting? To be able to hold them close and pull out their memory and relive the emotion of their story as if it were true? That’s what Owen Meany (And John Irving) did for me. And I feel better for having known him.
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