Very Talkative and Very Quiet Characters in Literature

Marx BrothersIn Marx Brothers movies, we have the talkative Groucho and Chico and the mute Harpo. “So it goes” with novels — there are some loquacious characters as well those who say little or nothing, though of course most are somewhere in between on the speaking scale.

When I think of chatty characters, the first one who comes to mind is the young Anne Shirley in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Her long, brainy, funny, descriptive, free-associative monologues are very endearing and memorable. Interestingly, Anne becomes less talkative as she grows older in that novel and in the various sequels; part of the reason is that she gains some confidence and is less insecure.

Also quite talkative is another young protagonist, Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, though I would not call him endearing. Rather annoying, actually.

Some of literature’s loquacious adult characters?

In Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, there’s the rarely-stops-talking Mrs. Nickleby — a well-meaning but silly person said to be partly based on the author’s mother. Also, Theo’s charismatic/kind-of-dangerous friend Boris in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, the loyal/admirable Samwise Gamgee in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and the “religious” titular character in Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry (con men are usually big talkers). Many others, too.

Quieter characters? Among them are Matthew Cuthbert of the aforementioned Anne of Green Gables (making for quite a contrast between him and adopted daughter Anne) and the titular orphan character of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (though the oft-beleaguered Jane can definitely say her piece at times, showing that shy characters are not always shy). Also, the gentle Beth March of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the reclusive Boo Radley of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the at first socially awkward Ireland-to-U.S. immigrant Eilis Lacey of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, to name just a few more.

Then there are characters who are nearly or completely mute, usually after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. For instance, the boy Ricky in John Grisham’s The Client becomes catatonic after seeing a suicide, and the boy Bernardo in Isabel Allende’s Zorro stops talking after witnessing his mother’s rape and murder. Also, in Maya Angelou’s novel-like autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she becomes mostly mute after being raped as a girl. Those kinds of characters clearly draw our sympathy for what they’ve been through.

Your favorite talkative or not-talkative people in fiction?

Here’s a clip with Groucho, Chico, and Harpo from the 1932 movie Horse Feathers. (A screen shot I took from the clip is above this blog post.)

I’ll be skipping a post next Sunday, November 24. Back on December 1!

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which covers out-of-control development and rent control — is here.

Formulaic vs. Non-Formulaic Authors

Lee ChildSome fiction authors are rather formulaic while others vary their approach with almost every novel — and I like both kinds of writers.

Formulaic positives? There’s comfort in knowing (approximately) what to expect. Non-formulaic positives? The delicious element of surprise. If the authors are good, satisfaction is guaranteed either way.

Plus formulaic authors often offer enough differences in each of their books to satisfy a reader’s yen for variety, and non-formulaic authors frequently have recurring elements in their works. So there’s some blurring between the two “camps.”

I recently finished my third Lisa Genova novel, Left Neglected. As with her also-great Still Alice and Inside the O’Briens, a character faces a major neurological challenge — with the story told from the perspective of that character and Genova covering all the medical and emotional bases. But there are variations: A different kind of neurological challenge in each of the three novels, whether ultimately fatal or not. Female protagonists in Still Alice and Left Neglected, a male protagonist in Inside the O’Briens. Affluent families in Still Alice and Left Neglected, a less-affluent family in Inside the O’Briens. Adult children in Still Alice and Inside the O’Briens, younger kids in Left Neglected. Etc.

Lee Child of Jack Reacher series fame also has his formula: The roaming Jack goes to a new place, trouble arises, Reacher deals with that trouble, Jack leaves town. But then there’s the variety: a new locale in almost every book, different kinds of trouble in almost every book, new supporting characters in almost every book, and so on. The 24th Reacher novel, Blue Moon, was released late last month, and I have no doubt it will be another Child page-turner when I get to it.

Excellent authors of thriller, detective, or mystery series frequently fit into the formulaic but not totally formulaic camp. Agatha Christie, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, Martin Cruz Smith, and many others.

In each of his 20 Rougon-Macquart novels published between 1871 and 1893, Emile Zola featured one or more members of those R-M families and usually offered an overarching theme: alcoholism in The Drinking Den, retailing in The Ladies’ Delight, mining in Germinal, art in The Masterpiece, rail travel in The Beast in Man, etc. So, those compelling Zola books were similar in a way, yet the characters of course had varied personalities and fates, and the aforementioned themes were also quite varied.

Some authors who often avoid a formula from novel to novel?

Margaret Atwood is certainly one. She’s expertly handled contemporary fiction (such as Cat’s Eye), historical fiction (Alias Grace), and of course “speculative” fiction (including The Handmaid’s Tale and its recent sequel The Testaments). But there are certain commonalities amid Atwood’s genre-jumping, most notably a feminist sensibility and other kinds of social awareness.

We also have J.K. Rowling. After she finished her seven blockbuster Harry Potter books, she wrote the decidedly non-magical/very sobering novel The Casual Vacancy. Then Rowling switched things up again with a crime series (four so far) starring private investigator Cormoran Strike. She skillfully nailed each of the three genres — and, while her approach in each is different, there are common elements such as deep sympathy for the underdog and a keen awareness of evil in the world.

Aldous Huxley is best known for his dystopian sci-fi classic Brave New World, but he also penned un-BNW-like novels such as Point Counter Point — a societal chronicle reminiscent of some 19th-century British literary fiction. Huxley displayed enough versatility to almost seem like different writers.

Authors you feel fit into either the formulaic or non-formulaic categories?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which covers overly aggressive driving and many other topics — is here.

Some Alarming Characters You Didn’t Want Trick-or-Treating at Your Door

Daniel Deronda

With Halloween only a few days in the rearview mirror, who are some scary characters in literature? Overtly scary, subtly scary, Richard Scarry…oops, he’s the children’s book author, and I rarely discuss children’s books.

Anyway, I’ll name 26 (13 + 13) scary characters, going back in time by the novel’s publication date. Some are scary in the horror-movie sense, while others are physically or emotionally abusive — or just generally villainous.

Perry of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (2014) is a wealthy banker with a hidden-from-society side of being a domestic abuser and sexual-predator sicko.

Lord Voldemort of J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books (2007 going back to 1997) is a no-brainer (though he was more lacking a nose than brain). The (hor)crux of the matter: LV is pathologically evil and menacing, as Harry well knows.

Anton Chigurh of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2005) is a psychopathic murderer who even has one potential victim flip a coin to “decide” whether he’ll kill her or not.

Martin Vanger, a disturbed corporate CEO and serial killer in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005).

Francine Whiting of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls (2001) is an ultra-wealthy widow who basically controls a Maine town with meanness and manipulation.

Baby Kochamma of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997) — an adult despite her name — is so spiteful that she ruins the lives of several family members.

Real-life dictator Rafael Trujillo, a murderer, torturer, and rapist from Julia Alvarez’s historical novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1994).

Zenia of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride (1993) wreaks havoc on the lives of three women who (initially) considered her a friend.

Nathan Locke of John Grisham’s The Firm (1991) is a thug who’s second in command at the novel’s titular law firm — a white-collar front for the mob.

Frank Bennett of Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987) is a scarily abusive husband to Ruth.

Annie Wilkes of Stephen King’s Misery (1987) puts a captive writer through a mental wringer while also physically assaulting him in gut-wrenching ways. She has a history as a serial killer, too.

Esteban Trueba of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits (1982) becomes wealthy as well as violent and right-wing, though he has some redeeming qualities.

Colton Wolf of Tony Hillerman’s People of Darkness (1980) is a chillingly methodical killer for hire — with one person doing the hiring another criminal: ultra-wealthy mining magnate B.J. Vines, who began amassing his fortune via mass murder.

Rufus Weylin of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred (1979) is a despicable slaveowner and rapist — a two-strikes-you’re-out lack of humanity.

Nurse Ratched of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) holds sadistic sway over a psychiatric ward, and is not afraid to use lobotomy as revenge.

Cathy of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952) is cold and amoral enough to set a fire that kills her parents and shoot her husband, among other ghoulish deeds.

Undine Spragg of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913) is so consumed with climbing the social ladder that she treats many people like dirt, even driving her second husband to suicide.

Gilbert Osmond of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1881) is the cruel, narcissistic husband of protagonist Isabel Archer — and has a hidden unsavory past.

Fyodor Karamazov of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880) is a bad husband, bad father, and all-round bad dude.

Henleigh Grandcourt of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) is a wealthy, sadistic man who makes wife Gwendolen miserable. (They’re pictured above in a screen adaptation of the novel.)

Count Fosco of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859) is a charming but chilling man who concocts a clever, dastardly scheme to make a financial killing.

Rigaud (aka Lagnier) of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit (1857) is a murderer and blackmailer.

Simon Legree of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) is another slaveholder — a cruel, brutish, heartless man.

Roger Chillingworth of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) is Hester Prynne’s nasty husband who returns after seemingly being lost at sea and acts fiendishly toward Hester and the man he suspects is the father of Hester’s born-out-of-wedlock daughter Pearl.

Henri of Alexandre Dumas’ Georges (1843) is a spoiled, scary racist. (One interesting fact about that lesser-known Dumas novel is that it’s the only one in which the part-black author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers heavily focused on issues of color.)

Brian de Bois-Guilbert of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820) is a power-hungry, violent, and arrogant 12th-century military man who — like the aforementioned Esteban Trueba — has some redeeming qualities.

I’ve obviously just scratched the surface here. What fictional characters have you found to be alarming?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which features a parade of weird trick-or-treaters — is here.