I read parts from the following:
- Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (2010 )
- Teju Cole, Open City (2011)
The following micro-essay compares and contrasts these author’s approaches to character looking particularly at the stylistic choices they made, regarding how the reader will experience character, and what effects these have.
Christina Stead based The Man Who Loved Children on her own experiences as a child. Teju Cole shares many characteristics with the first person narrator in Open City. It’s therefore not a stretch to say that they are both identifying somewhat with the main character/narrator. As such, they are confronting what Bakhtin calls double-voicedness. In other words, the characters are expressing both their own voice / personality, and that of the author. To the extent that they are successful in this, Bakhtin says that they will be speaking ‘not about the character, but with him’.
That said, they attempt this in very different styles.
CS has the livelier prose of the two, and the one with the most invective. She portrays the character in this scene (Hannie) as being rather hateful, excitable, wild and colourful in her language. She describes the things and people around her in an extremely open and opinionated fashion and she drags the reader into her world with the force of her words. To read this prose is to touch the object spoken about and think the thoughts that are being related. A forceful style is good if the subject is interesting enough, and in this case, it is.
TC has a quieter style of writing, but is no less forceful in putting over his point of view. Even though TC comes over somewhat as a tour guide in terms of the things he writes about, when he gets onto a subject that he feels strongly about, the reader can tell from the phrasing and vocabulary used how much emotion has been invested in that scene.
There is a sense with both authors that they are, each with their own styles, speaking through a narrator into a character and then to the reader (real and implied). One can sense the various parties involved in the narrative in much the way that the critic Seymour Chatman described when he modelled these stages. It’s interesting to see how these models work in ‘real life’, albeit a manufactured reality.
Both authors are adept in using their unique styles to convey characters that feel real to this reader. I’d recommend both novels as exemplars of characterisation (on the strength of reading all of Open City and the first chapter of The Man Who Loved Children).