Introducing a Character
With fiction comes imagination, and according to Lodge, the development of a fictional character “is arguably the most important single component of the novel” (Lodge 67). In older fiction, authors would introduce characters by describing physical characteristics and providing a biographical summary. While this technique is admirable, it’s considered outdated for modern ages because it’s apart of a “more patient and leisurely culture than ours”. Nowadays, authors tend to allow their fictional characters to emerge gradually throughout the story through their speech and actions. (Lodge 68) A perfect example of a novelist who strays away from typical writing style tendencies is Mark Twain.
Several of Mark Twain’s short stories share the common underlying essence of Christianity and what it preaches. These short stories typically mock prominent figures in Christian tales, including Adam, Eve, and the little boys in Sunday-school books. Although these characters are the ones being mocked, Twain is criticizing the reader by taking a jab at people they consider sacred. In Twain’s short stories “The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Didn’t Come to Grief” and “The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper”, Twain depicts his main characters from the eyes of a third-person narrator. In “The Story of the Bad Little Boy”, the audience is introduced to main character Jim who, unlike the bad little boys in Sunday-school books, is not named James. The narrator’s emphasis on the difference in names creates satire and humor because Jim is a nickname for James. The narrator indicates that Jim’s success, despite his bad behavior, is not incongruous to the Sunday school stories because of the difference in names. Twain purposefully made this sound ridiculous, and the ridiculousness of the narrator’s reasoning is amplified by the fact that the names are essentially the same.
Throughout the beginning of the story, Jim is molded as a bad little boy because he is described by his naughty actions. Just like the boys in the Sunday-school books, Jim would disobey his parents and break the rules. However, Jim’s outcomes differed from James’s because he would never suffer any consequences. For example:
“Once he climbed up in Farmer Acorn’s apple-tree to steal apples, and the limb didn’t break, ad didn’t gall and break his arm, and get torn by the farmer’s great dog, and then languish on a sick bed for weeks, and repent and become good. Oh! No! He stole as many apples as he wanted, and came down all right” (Twain 11).
Just like bad boy Jim, good boy Jacob Blivens’s outcomes as a result of his behavior were the opposite of what was typically unfolded in Sunday-school books; Rather than being rewarded for his decent behavior, Jacob Blivens never prospered. Similar to “The Story of the Bad Little Boy”, “The Story of the Good Little Boy” revolves around the main character whose outcomes differ from those read in the Sunday-school books. Unlike Jim, Jacob Blivens obeys his parents and doesn’t break any rules. Twain introduces Jacob Blivens through a list of things he didn’t do, for example:
“He would not play hookey […] He wouldn’t lie […] He wouldn’t play marbles on Sunday, he wouldn’t rob birds’ nests, he wouldn’t give hot pennies to organ-grinders’ monkeys” (Twain 29).
Unlike the good little boys in the Sunday-school books, however, “nothing ever went right with this good little boy; nothing ever turned out with him the way it turned out with the good little boys in the books” (Twain 30).
Twain’s use of a narrator and comparison and contrast highlight the differences of his main characters versus those surrounding them. He abandoned physical descriptions and brief biographical summaries and rather used modern techniques such as allowing the character emerge through action and speech throughout the story.
In Twain’s short stories “Extracts From Adam’s Diary” and “Eve’s Diary”, Twain’s main characters, Adam and Eve, are rendered from inside their minds as the audience reads their diaries. Oddly enough, Adam and Eve can be seen as representatives of how men and women are generally. In “Extracts from Adam’s Diary”, the reader’s first impression of Adam is of him describing Eve as a “new creature” (Twain 120). Adam’s initial journal entries revolve around his interactions with Eve and his desire to stray away from here. In “Eve’s Diary”, however, Eve’s initial entries revolve around her personal thoughts and beliefs. She goes on to discuss how she views herself as an “experiment” and discusses her infatuation with the nature surrounding her. Twain’s choice in presenting Adam and Eve through diary entries is an interesting way to introduce characters. Readers’ first impressions of the main characters are based of off Adam and Eve’s thoughts alone, allowing the readers to put themselves in their shoes. By doing so, Twain defamiliarizes them and their prominent stories in the Bible. This effect allows the reader to empathize with both characters after being painted as normal beings and join them along their journey into discovering themselves.
Twain’s approach to introducing characters deviates from old school, mainstream approaches. Rather than introducing his characters through physical attributes with a biographical summary at the start of the story, Twain allows the reader to gradually discover different aspects of the character along the way, and explore the psychological depth and richness of both the characters and human nature. Mark Twain’s short stories are a prime example of modern-day techniques used to introduce characters in a story, which is a fundamental component of a storytelling.
Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction. Vintage, 2011.
Twain, Mark. The Best Short Stories of Mark Twain. Edited by Lawrence I. Berkove, Modern Library, 2004.