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Character Corner: "Huge," by James Fuerst

[Note: I’m starting a new semi-regular feature here on the blog. “Character Corner” is book reviews from the perspective of showing character, not plot. Here we go!]

Last night I finished reading Huge, the debut novel by James Fuerst. We’ll get to the character stuff in a minute, but let me gush about the book in generic book review terms for a minute:

I loved this book. I give it four, maybe four and a half stars. It was awesome. Funny. Poignant. Moving in places. Very well set in its time and place (New Jersey in the 1980s). Funny. Wait, did I just say that? I did. But it was. This book had me giggling from cover to cover, and busting out laughing at its high points. It was flat out hilarious, but not just in throwaway silliness. The humor was inherent in the truly amusing circumstances Fuerst put his characters in.

Ok. Enough of that. What I really loved, and what Fuerst absolutely nails in this novel better than a lot of successful career novelists I could name, is the characterization. It’s hard to discuss characterizaton in a meaningful way without also spoiling the plot, but I’m going to try because y’all really should read this book and it would be a crime if I went and spoiled it for you.

Huge

The main character is a pre-teen boy named Eugene Smalls. Everyone calls him “Genie,” but he has decided he’d rather be called “Huge” instead, despite his diminutive physical stature. Huge Smalls. Classic. Now, you’re going to think I wrote last Friday’s article on purpose, because Huge Smalls is such a perfect example of what I was talking about, but I didn’t. Sometimes things just work out like that.

What I mean is that Huge’s view of himself is wildly at odds with how others see him. This is pretty obvious from very early on in the book. So you know that at some point he’s going to have that moment of epiphany where he realizes this and has to deal with it. Fuerst handles it brilliantly; what I won’t reveal is which of the three strategies I explained in that last article Fuerst chose for dealing with it.

Huge also has a chip on his shoulder that’s so big I’m surprised it doesn’t crush him. I’m not a big fan of this, because generally it is just a sign of an overblown ego, but I was surprised to see what Fuerst did with it. Huge’s chip on his shoulder wasn’t so much about ego as it was about armor. Fuerst did a beautiful job of portraying that particular character flaw as a defense mechanism, which did wonders to help make Huge—a difficult kid to love—into more sympathetic character.

The Frog

As wonderful a character as Huge Smalls himself is, I have to tell you, I particularly liked the frog. Yes, the book has character who is a frog. No, the book is not a paranormal piece, it’s not magical realism, it’s not wizard fiction or anything like that. It’s straight-up real world stuff, but there’s a frog in it. Not only that, but the frog is actually an integral supporting cast member and a distinctive character in his own right. If that piques your interest—how can a writer turn a frog into real character without resorting to fantasy?—it should. Go read the book.

It would have been easy for Fuerst to simply make the frog be like any other person. We’ve all read talking animal stories at some point, so we’re all familiar with animal characters who, despite being four legged, nevertheless think and act pretty much like people do. My guess is that Fuerst could have gone that route and still managed to have the frog serve its necessary function in relation to the plot and Huge’s character arc.

I’m glad he didn’t, because that would have sucked compared to what he did do, which was to go deep into the mindset of a frog. The frog has froggy opinions and attitudes about the world and about Huge’s life. The frog’s perspective is completely different from Huge’s. Yet, once you understand that this frog is supposed to be an actual frog instead of a frog-shaped person, his perspective fits so exactly what you might imagine a real frog thinking and saying that the character becomes really believable.

It’s a tour-de-force of characterization. I’m tempted to make “good writers know how to think like a frog” into my new motto. The relationship between Huge and the frog is also intricate yet very well portrayed, but I can’t really tell you much more than that without getting into spoiler territory, so I won’t. Go read the book.

James Fuerst: a writer to watch

All in all Huge was a great read, and a very impressive showing for anybody, let alone a first-time novelist. I envy Fuerst’s ability to craft really funny scenes and yet blend them with a ‘huge’ amount of pathos. I’ll be waiting eagerly to see what he comes up with next.

October 26, 2009 17:29 UTC

Tags: character corner, book review, James Fuerst, Huge, outer character arc, humor

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Dramatic frustration: remember to keep the emotions real

Last week I wrote about how you can steal your character’s shoes in order to bring a dull character to life and create a mounting sense of drama in your plot. It’s an effective technique, but it’s not the only one for achieving those ends.

A related technique is not to steal their shoes, but rather, to make their shoes irrelevant to the task at hand. Show them that they’ve got the wrong tools for the job.

The goal is to find whatever skills and strengths makes your protagonist and everyone else believe she’s the right woman for the job, then reveal that the job isn’t what everybody thought it was so those skills are no good after all. It’s like shoe stealing, in that it forces the character to develop new skills or rely on abilities she isn’t confident about, but there’s a critical difference.

The character’s emotional response isn’t the same

If you steal the character’s shoes—if you literally make character’s assets unavailable—the character should respond with some form of the Five Stages of Grief. You’ve just subjected them to a loss. Any loss, whether it’s killing off the character’s beloved sidekick or simply taking away your sharpshooter heroine’s sniper rifle, should evoke the same pattern of emotional responses. The only difference is degree.

However, if you let the character keep her shoes but make the shoes useless, the character should show a different emotional response. There are a variety of emotions that would be believable, in response to realizing that there’s a mismatch between the character’s skills or tools, and the job at hand, depending on the situation. You’ll have to put on your empathy hat to figure out which one is right, but then, we writers ought to have that hat sewn onto our heads permanently anyway:

Frustration. This choice is apt when it’s the mismatch is the character’s own fault, or when she can credibly believe it’s her own fault. Think about how you feel when you set out to do some little odd job around the house, like tightening a loose screw on a cupboard door, only to find that you’ve trudged all the way down to the garage and back up to the kitchen with a Phillips-head screwdriver instead of a flathead. Frustrating. If the job has to be done under any sort of time pressure or other chaotic situation, that only compounds the feeling.

Anger. This is a good choice when the mismatch isn’t the character’s fault. If someone sent the highly trained sharpshooter heroine on a mission that turns out to involve sabotaging a battalion’s worth of the enemy’s heavy artillery, she would justifiably be angry about it. The core response is some version of “Why the hell did they send me?”

Fear. Consider a fear response when the stakes are high, and the mismatch elevates the danger of death or injury from failing to get the job done. The character’s sudden realization that she isn’t nearly as well equipped for the job as she thought could easily trigger a fear response. This applies to male characters just as well as female characters.

Humor. Let’s face it, sometimes a mismatch is just plain funny. Surprise is the core element of much humor, and on some level it’s going to be a surprise to turn the character’s expectations how she’s will deal with the situation on their ear. You can do this to lighten the tone of the book, at least briefly, if things have been dark and heavy for a while. Give the characters—and the reader—a little emotional high spot in the middle of the drama.

Mix it up Try combining some of these four core emotional responses into more complex, nuanced feelings. For example, combine fear and humor into a terrified character letting out a desperate laugh. Let her be laughing not in the face of danger, but simply because it’s the only way to keep her sanity while trying to survive the situation. This can create not only a vivid scene, but can work to underscore the sensation of crisis.

Always keep the emotions real.

Whatever you do, the strategy remains the same: create an obstacle for your protagonist by changing the situation she previously felt confident about into one she is ill-equipped to deal with. Watch her struggle through it, and while she does, pay careful attention to creating a believable display of emotions. Nothing sabotages a character faster than when her emotions don’t match the situation.

October 16, 2009 19:40 UTC

Tags: character, drama, crisis, frustration, anger, fear, humor, emotions

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