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Analysis of endearing traits, or written vs oral

On writing:

As my last post mentioned, I’m reading What’s a Ghoul to Do? with an eye towards composition. How does she make us identify with her main character? Why do we stay interested? And so forth.

I described her overdrawn character caricatures in the previous post. Fortunately for the reader, we’re now mostly confined to the two leads, which makes it a lot easier to bear. After all, two eccentric characters are plausible enough.

But another thing struck me. I think it has to do with the difference between a written and an oral story. Or perhaps between something we read and something we hear. It concerns the lead male character, Dr. Steven Sable.

Steven is the romantic hero. He’s smart, charming, hot (very hot!), wealthy, basically everything that a girl could want. I think the author worried about how to make him believable or maybe how to keep the audience from being bored by his myriad of attractions. No person is flawless. Those who seem that way tend to annoy us, not attract us.

And our lead character, with whom we should identify, is certainly attracted. Therefore, the author gave him a cute little quirk. Because he’s a foreigner (ah yes, did I mention he’s half Latino and raised in Argentina?), he has trouble with English. Sometimes he mixes up idioms, but most often he just gets words confused.

But it’s not cute at all. Instead, it’s repetitive and boring. I got the feeling that she started it early and then couldn’t stop it midway through so kept going with it.

This idea can work. In the CBS show NCIS, the character of Ziva David makes similar linguistic errors. Most frequently she confuses idioms and makes them amusing. And it’s a cute, endearing quality–just what Victoria Laurie wants for her hero. So, I wondered, is it just Laurie’s execution that fails here?

But I think it’s something deeper. It’s the difference between reading a book, even aloud, and watching two people interact. On tv, we see Ziva just blurting things out. We see her coworkers reactions, a mix of surprise and amusement. Then they correct her and she may even remark on why that’s a stupid idiom. The screenwriters also limit it to once or twice an episode, so we don’t get tired of it.

I don’t think it translates to the page for a couple reasons. First, I wonder if our eyes don’t already correct it even as we read it. Second, the correction is often in the very next line. Tv allows time for pauses and such. We can’t physically see the next line coming on tv. Third, we have to make our own fun when reading. Normally that’s not too hard, but comedy scenes are hit-or-miss. It’s a lot easier when you have actors helping out your imagination. When reading, you really have to want it.

Finally, the mistakes come too frequently. In a whole season, I doubt Ziva made as many slip ups as Steven did in the first half of the book. A wiser move would have been to limit them to once or twice per chapter. Then they would have been less expected and Laurie could have concentrated on making them particularly good. Plus I would have been more likely to invest more imagination into the scenes instead of starting to dismiss them.

If I ever write a character like this, I should probably be forced to reread this post and then smacked a couple times with my manuscript. It’s not a bad idea, Ms. Laurie. It’s not a bad book, even. But making a character more real shouldn’t make us frustrated with him all the time. We’re only supposed to be frustrated with him when he’s doing stupid or counter-productive things.


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