Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Profoundly Human Characters

Intriguing, funny and sometimes morally questionable characters can bring a book from good to great. Authors Jowita Bydlowska, Mary Morrissy and David Szalay are all prime examples of this notion. The October 22nd Character Studies evening at Christ Church Cathedral gave audiences an insightful peek into these authors’ creative processes for writing interesting characters that are sure to captivate readers.

Mary Morrissy’s reading unveiled two characters whose inner monologues were beyond charming in their humanness. Her refreshing and funny insight into the anxieties and thoughts of her characters reminded audiences of their own awkward and anxious feelings when running into an old lover or friend. Morrissy captures the mind of us all in quaint but intuitive stories about suburban life.

Jowita Bydlowska’s character Guy is without empathy and has great potential to be hated; nevertheless, this draws audiences into Guy’s web of emotional atrocities in a desperate need to know if he will get what’s coming to him or learn a valuable life lesson. Bydlowska writes a character that readers will love to hate.

David Szalay’s reading of his oldest character captures the discouraging frailty of age, which so many of his readers may experience or fear. Szalay understands the frustrations of aging, bringing the difficulty of everyday tasks to the forefront of the story. What was once so easy and natural is now filled with fear and caution.

All three authors are “masters of character” said the evening’s host Rhonda Douglas. While these characters may not be the most likeable or moral, an issue none of the authors concerned themselves with, they are interesting. Morrissy, Bydlowska and Szalay all agreed that they write not for likeability, but for truth of character. They write books they themselves would like to read. Such stories have a way of building naturally around good characters.

Douglas made the observation that all three books require the reader to actively participate. The audience and Douglas agreed that this is an indication of a well-written story. The author’s question panel discussed the challenges of writing uncensored characters and the backlash that could be projected onto the author. However, the evening concluded with the idea that an author must do the character justice despite the nature of that character. To censor a character would be unjust to both the character and the reader.  Morrissy, Bodlowska and Szalay skilfully unveil their characters while allowing the readers to bring their own faults to the story, thus allowing readers to find kinship despite moral faults. Douglas summed up the three works well by noting that the characters in each story are “profoundly moving in surprising ways.”