Fixing Up the Way I Look at Characters

I have a three-year-old at home, so it’s no great shock that I spent a large part of this past spring watching the movie Frozen. I never did see it in the theater, but after multiple viewings on Blu-Ray, I’ll admit that I see the appeal.

In case you’ve been living under a rock (like me)…

Frozen – a loose adaptation of “The Snow Queen” – is essentially a 21st-century addendum to the “Disney Renaissance” playbook. Like The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, it’s essentially a Broadway musical with legitimate Broadway talent cast in key roles. There are 24+ minutes of musical numbers in the film, all of which manage to be ear-worm infectious without being annoying. More important, each number helps to advance the story and develop the film’s characters. None of them are throw-aways that are only there to fill out the soundtrack album.

What separates Frozen from its Renaissance-era forebears, however, is its willingness to embrace modern thematic content and avoid pandering to children with fairy tale notions of love and marriage. The film benefits tremendously from a pair of intelligent, emotionally independent, and strong-willed heroines who ultimately find themselves in conflict with a fiendishly manipulative but non-transparent villain. Or, to put it more simply, at no point in the movie do you have to look at Elsa and Anna and think C’mon! Really!?!.

But, I’m not here today to write a review of a movie that came out eight months ago. I’m here to share some thoughts on one of the film’s musical numbers, the theme at it’s center, and the perspective it’s given me regarding character. Whether you’re a teacher, a writer, or just an avid reader and/or movie-goer, it might be worth taking a second look at your favorite characters through the lens presented below.

“Fixer Upper”

At this point in the film, lovable everyman Kristoff has brought a wounded Anna to his adopted family in hopes that they can help save the young princess’s life. Kristoff’s family, shocked to see him with a woman for what seems to be the first time, is intent on setting the pair up. What follows is a welcome moment of levity in a movie that delves into some dark subject matter (for a children’s story) and a song that has volumes to say about the human condition. For convenience, I’ve included the video below.

Oh…did I forget to mention that Kristoff’s family was a herd of trolls?

Sorry.

“Everyone’s a bit of a fixer-upper. That’s what it’s all about.”

Scott Adams wrote in Seven Years of Highly Defective People that he “only like[s] characters with huge, gaping character flaws”. I think if we stopped and really took stock, most of us would be hard-pressed to disagree with him. We are each of us fundamentally flawed as individuals, each carrying our own unique baggage through life. We turn to literature, film, and theater to witness the tribulations of others who share our same shortcomings and toil under our same baggage. Regardless of whether we’re searching for solace or schadenfreude, we seek out characters with whom we identify and insinuate ourselves onto their lives as a means of navigating our way through our own. Because of this need to relate, identify, and share, it’s rare that we meet a principal character in any medium who is perfect. When we do, we tend to find such characters unsettling and quickly grow suspicious of them for being “too perfect”. In other words, our first instinct is to regard perfection as a fundamental flaw.

So…perhaps the key to understanding any given character is simply understanding how he or she is, like each of us, a “fixer-upper”.

“We need each other to raise us up and round us out.”

At face value, “Fixer Upper” seems to make the cloying and quintessentially Disney-fied assertion that the only thing missing from our lives is to be swept away by the man or woman of our dreams. On closer examination, however, the song is a surprisingly honest examination of how messy a proposition true love really is. In the end, we love the people that we love because of their flaws rather than in spite of them. To paraphrase the lyrics, we can’t change the people we love and they can’t really change us, but we can bring out the best in each other.

Or, as Rocky put it, "I dunno.  She's got gaps.  I got gaps.  Together we fill gaps."

Or, as Rocky put it, “I dunno. She’s got gaps. I got gaps. Together we fill gaps.”

“So he’s a bit of a fixer-upper, so he’s got a few flaws…”

In How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster wrote that the most important question you have to be able to answer about any character is what does he want more than anything else?.

Let’s assume that the answer across the board is simply this: To be fixed. In that case, consider the following questions:

1. In what way is the character a “fixer-upper”? In other words, What about that character needs fixing?

2. What’s it going to take to fix him?

3. Does the character actually get fixed?

and

4. How? Or, if not, Why not?

“The only fixer-upper fixer that can fix a fixer-upper…”

…is true love, according to the song. The trolls, of course, are singing about the potential for romance between Kristoff and Anna. That sentiment can be easily generalized to a wide variety of love stories and fairy tales. Take a moment to consider Ariel or Belle or The Beast and you’ll see what I mean. The mental math is relatively simple. It’s when we’re forced to venture into questions of why not? that the equation gets tricky.

In his book, Thomas C. Foster’s primary example is The Great Gatsby. Foster posits that the key to understanding its title character is simply understanding how desperately he desires to win back his lost love, Daisy Buchanan. James Gatz literally becomes a new man, a mysterious self-made millionaire named Jay Gatsby. And he does it solely to win the love of a woman he couldn’t have when he was just a working-class nobody.

"His isolation is confirmation of his desperation for healing hugs."

“His isolation is confirmation of his desperation for healing hugs.”

Now, consider Gatsby as a fixer-upper.

The most glaring thing about Gatsby that needs fixing is the fact that he’s hopelessly hung up on the past. Gatsby believes – as would any first-time reader – that Daisy’s love would put his demons to rest. Unfortunately, even though Gatsby seems to win Daisy over, he still doesn’t win her love. Worse, he’s forced to face the fact that he likely never had it in the first place. Daisy is emotionally bankrupt, and Gatsby has to come to grips with the fact that the dream he’s been chasing for years is merely that: just a dream. Gatsby’s world falls apart, and the ensuing mayhem takes his life. What more did he have to live for anyway? He was a broken man with no hope of being fixed.

“He’s just a bit of a fixer-upper. He’s got a couple of bugs…”

Obviously, the equation isn’t perfect. Nothing so simple ever is. But it does hold up reasonably well, even when we have to bend the rules a little bit. Let’s look at two more examples.

Around the time Frozen hit theaters, I was busy reading Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. The twenty-first century incarnation of Danny Torrance is a fixer-upper because he’s still haunted by the events that took place at the Overlook Hotel when he was a child, and he’s consequently fallen victim to alcoholism and drug abuse. What ultimately fixes Dan is the discovery that he has an illegitimate half-sister.

At its climax, Frozen asserts that the true love we need doesn’t have to be romantic. The love of family and friends is just as vital, magical, and powerful as that of a potential partner. Much the same can be said of Doctor Sleep. Together, Dan Torrance and his new family are able to face the demons that collectively haunt them. Acts of true love abound and are able to overcome even the ghosts of Jack Torrance and the Overlook itself.

“We’ve got a real, actual problem here.”

When I first had the idea for this post, I was busy teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to my freshmen. Using it as a test case in my first set of scribbled notes was almost enough to make me give up on the whole idea.

The hell with that.

Atticus Finch is about as close as I can come to thinking of a truly perfect character in literature. But I would still accuse him of having at least one major flaw: He is a hopeless idealist. Now, don’t get me wrong. Atticus Finch’s idealism and his moral resolve are two of his most endearing traits. We should all be so blessed. In the novel’s final chapters, however, Atticus’s unwavering compulsion to do the right thing almost costs him his son.

In the wake of Bob Ewell’s death, Atticus is so hell-bent on being an upstanding and law-abiding man that he’s willing to throw Jem at the mercy of the local court (a dicey proposition at best in Maycomb…especially if your name’s Finch). Worse, Atticus is blind to the fact that Jem is obviously innocent of Bob Ewell’s murder. The thing that saves Atticus Finch from himself? His daughter. Scout reminds Atticus of one of the most important lessons he’s ever taught her, one that is both infinitely relevant and immediately applicable to their situation. She listened. She learned. And now she’s the one teaching him, difficult as it might be. As the father of two young daughters, I can only pray that mine love me that much some day.

Hmmm...he might be on to something there.

Hmmm…he might be on to something there.

So…

Try it out for yourself. Pick a favorite book or movie, pick a character, and pick him or her apart. Answer the questions below and see what happens.

1. In what way is the character a “fixer-upper”?

2. What’s it going to take to fix him?

3. Does the character actually get fixed?

and

4. How? Or, if not, Why not?

Leave a comment with the results and your thoughts. I’m thinking about sharing this with my students next year, and the more feedback I get the better it will be.

As always, thanks for reading.

CVA

Advertisements

Three Thoughts on MINUTES BEFORE SUNSET

First, let’s clear the air about a few things…

1. Although I suppose I have no official deadline for this review, my sense of common human decency (limited as it might be) tells me I’m probably about two months late delivering it.

2. I’m not done with the book yet, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. Consider these my impressions on the game so far as I come out of the tunnel for the second half.

3. Because of number 1, I’m going to go ahead and share these impressions now with both my apologies (I do a lot of that on this sight, don’t I?) and the promise of a more complete review once I’m finished.

Damn. I just read back over all that, and if I were one of my students I would probably kick my ass right now.

Anyway, my *spoiler-free* impressions thus far of Shannon A. Thompson’s Minutes Before Sunset

I have a LOT of students who would get really into it

I’m not going to lie, Minutes Before Sunset really isn’t what I would normally choose for myself. But Shannon put out the call for willing critics…and I’d been looking for an opportunity to write a book review…so I figured why the hell not?.

But that’s beside the point.

The point is that I spend my days with the Shannon’s target audience and I think her novel has a lot appeal for them. It has a pair of easily relatable narrators/main characters (Eric and Jessica), it has an interesting mythology (the secret existence of “Shades” and “Lights”, supernatural beings spiraling towards a prophesied final conflict), it has multiple layers of mystery (sorry…spoilers), and it has a pretty solid twist near the end of the second act (ditto). The duel narrators provide a degree of gender balance (read: crossover appeal) often lacking in a lot of YA lit. And although there is the potential for definite sexual tension between them, it has not taken over the story.

My tardiness with this review is in no way an indictment of the material

I started reading Minutes Before Sunset just as the new semester was starting and while I was in the process of trying to finish another project. So even though I tore through the first half of the novel, mayhem started creeping into my life and eating away at my reading time. Being the selfish son-of-a-bitch that I am, I set Minutes Before Sunset on the backburner. But I’m back to it now and hoping to make short work of what’s left.

My one complaint so far…

If I had to level an indictment against Shannon’s writing, I would say it’s a little too explicit for my tastes (as in the opposite of implicit…get your mind out of the gutter). Shannon’s very detailed in her description of action and expression – sometimes jarringly so for a first-person narrative – and I’m fairly certain she hasn’t met a modifier that she doesn’t like. That’s a criticism, however, that far better writers than I have leveled against J.K. Rowling…and she did all right for herself in the end.

As it stands right now, the best words of praise I can give are these:

1. I intend to keep reading. If nothing else, that second act twist has my interest.

2. If one of students came to me looking for something to read, I’d certainly recommend it.

For more information on Shannon A. Thompson and Minutes Before Sunset, click here.

As always, thanks for reading.

CVA

Thursday Three-for-All: Three Shameful Confessions of a High School English Teacher

Yeah, I know it’s Friday. But I had the idea that maybe a weekly feature or two would help me maintain better focus on my blog and help keep me accountable for posting regularly. Yesterday – Thursday – the “Thursday Three-for-All” came to me. Unfortunately, I was not able to get the inaugural edition completed before the day was out. Instead of saving it for next week (and risking setting it aside forever), I decided to deliver it a day late. Late, they tell me, is better than never.

I thought I should inaugurate my new feature with something that hits close to home. So here goes….

THREE SHAMEFUL CONFESSIONS OF A HIGH SCHOOL ENGLISH TEACHER

1. I’ve never finished Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I just can’t do it. And, believe me, I’ve tried. What begins as a brilliant, biting, and sometimes uproariously funny novel hits its peak in chapter 31….and then limps along for twelve more chapters. The book’s final adventure is ludicrous, tiresome, and decidedly unentertaining. Worse than that, it represents some serious backsliding for the title character.

Imagine if Twain had exercised enough restraint to make this the closing passage of the novel:

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up.

Against all odds, Huck makes the most important and the most grown-up decision of his life. In spite of his father, in spite of the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, in spite of the law, and even in spite of the mortal (perhaps eternal) danger to himself, Huck chooses to rescue the runaway Jim from capture and re-enslavement. Whether or not Huck succeeds is ultimately immaterial. At this point, Huck has seen enough of the “sivilized” world to understand what it is to be truly civilized. He’s finally mature enough to make the right choice simply because it’s right and because Jim is plainly and simply his friend.

Then Tom Sawyer shows up.

If I could reach through the pages of Huck Finn and punch Tom, I would. Repeatedly.

What is supposed to be Adventures of Huckleberry Finn rapidly degenerates into The Grand Delusions of Tom Sawyer. Huck does a complete 180 and falls back into his old habit of being Tom’s lackey while Tom goes out of his way to put himself, Huck, and Jim in danger. Tom even manages gets himself shot before it’s all said and done. And then he reveals that, oops!, Jim was a free man the entire time. To put it into modern terms, you can almost hear Tom saying Sorry, brah. No worries, ok?

Are you fucking kidding me?

The sad thing is, I teach this novel. And – sub-confession to an already lengthy outpouring of my soul here – after chapter 31, my heart’s never in it . Some years I simply stop there. Some years I make the last twelve chapters optional or extra credit. And some years I make those chapters independent reading and keep my students accountable by requiring some reference to them in the final essay. But there’s really no good way to handle them. They’re shit. And I just don’t have the heart to drag my students through such steaming piles of shit, especially when I can’t even do it to myself!

2. I really don’t like Holden Caulfield

I’m sure this will be met with immediate outcries of You just don’t get it. And regardless of what it might be – Holden, Salinger, the novel, the era, the counter-cultural movement, the beat generation, the moral, the theme, the meaning of life, whatever – you might be right. I’m willing to concede that maybe I don’t get it. But I still just can’t stand that Holden Caulfield. If I could have him and Tom Sawyer play Larry and Curly to my Moe, if I could take care of the pair of them with one sweeping slap across both of their faces, I’d be a happier man for it.

That’s not to say that an unlikeable character is an automatic deal-breaker for me as a reader. I spent most of Confederacy of Dunces wishing awful things on Ignatius J. Reilly, but I still couldn’t stop reading. He and his story were too damn entertaining. I’ve even fallen into the trap myself of writing a book with a protagonist who can easily be written off as weak-willed and whiney. But I identify with him and his plight.

Unfortunately, I have none of those feelings for poor Holden. In my eyes, he’s a repeat failure who’s irresponsible, judgmental, and who generally treats the people around him like shit. He’s quick to dismiss anyone who doesn’t agree with his stunted worldview as a “phony”, but he ultimately proves himself one of the phoniest and most hypocritical losers in American literature. Multiple generations of readers revere him as an icon of teen angst and rebelliousness, but for what? For running away from his problems and transferring his insecurities on to others so he doesn’t have to face the damning truths of his own life?

Great American icon of teenage rebellion my ass. As far as I’m concerned, Holden Caulfield is a spoiled brat and a coward.

What more is there to get?

3. I just can’t read Tim O’Brien

This is an especially damning confession for me, because O’Brien is held up on the highest of pedestals by most of the other English teachers in my district. The Things They Carried is regarded by my colleagues as a seminal work in the twentieth-century canon, one which EVERY student needs to read at some point in their life.

And maybe that’s my problem with Tim O’Brien. Maybe the hype monster killed him for me.

I’ve tried to read The Things They Carried….I’ve tried to read Going After Cacciato…and I’ve tried to read In the Lake of the Woods. I’ve tried to read each of them multiple times. And I just can’t find my way into them. I don’t know if it’s O’Brien’s style or his subject matter. I don’t know if it’s that my expectations are impossibly high or if there’s just a little bit of the contrarian coming out of me. But I just can’t get in to Tim O’Brien.

That’s not to say that I’ve given up on him. I’ve promised myself I’ll take another poke at The Things They Carried before I put it to rest for good. I just don’t know when that will be.

And I’m definitely not in any hurry.

So, that’s it for this week’s inaugural “Thursday Three-for-All”. I’m sure it’s ruffled some feathers, but I doubt I’m alone in any of this. Regardless of where you fall, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And, if you’re an English teacher, I’d love to hear some of your shameful confessions, too.

CVA

With Sincere Apologies to Marc Brown (for whom I have the utmost respect and who I think is a genius…for real)

I'm sorry.  I'm so...so sorry.

I’m sorry. I’m so…so sorry.

In the world of not-so-shocking confessions and revelations, there’s this: I’m a great big kid. I still watch animated movies (even without my daughter), I still light up at the thought of ice cream, and I still play video games.

When I’m alone, I still transport myself to elaborate, Mitty-esque fantasy worlds where the tasks in front of me are a little less mundane and the time I spend on them passes a little bit faster.

Anyone who’s seen what I’ve rated on Goodreads lately can figure out that I’ve read a lot more comic books than novels over the past couple of years.

But the most important thing you need to know about me for today is simply this: Flatulence makes me laugh. Even now, the thought of editing the previous sentence to say Fart jokes still make me laugh or even just Farts make me laugh actually set me giggling more than I should probably admit.

Yup.  That's me.

Yup. That’s me.

I can’t help but chuckle at a well placed That’s what she said.

Since my daughter was born, my wife and I have even created our own local variation of the game. We call it And that’s how you were made.

An example, paraphrased from a wrestling match with some new children’s furniture from IKEA:

“You need to hold this straight while I pound it in.”

“And that’s how you were made.”

It’s great, because it’s not plagued by the obvious gender bias that haunts That’s what she said, effectively doubling your chances at some crude, accidental double-entendre.

So, I suppose it was only a matter of time before the eternally adolescent side of my middle-aged brain decided to victimize one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature.

Calm down, Arthur.  Absolutely no "...but the ass was fat" jokes here.  Even I don't laugh at those.

Calm down, Arthur. Absolutely no “…but the ass was fat” jokes here. Even I don’t laugh at those.

Like any two year old, my daughter has a mind like a sponge. Sometimes we like to give it a little squeeze to see what oozes out. While reading to her, my wife and I will stop midsentence and see how much she can recite. Lately, we’ve started deliberately making mistakes while we read to see how quickly our daughter corrects us.

And this is where the trouble begins.

Before bedtime recently, my daughter brought me a battered copy of Arthur’s Nose. I lifted her into my lap, held the book up in front of her, and reverentially proclaimed “Arthur’s Buttocks”.

My daughter, of course, dutifully corrected me. And bless her little heart. She was completely unfazed by my sudden lapse into the risqué and quickly forgot all about it.

I wish I could say the same for her father.

From that point on, my inner 13-year-old read every reference to Arthur’s nose as “Arthur’s buttocks”.

An excerpt:

This is Arthur. He is worried about his *buttocks*.
This is Arthur’s mom.
This is Arthur’s dad.
This is Arthur’s sister.
They all love Arthur, and they all like his *buttocks*.

One day Arthur decided he didn’t like his *buttocks*.
He had a cold and his *buttocks* was red.
His sister thought his *buttocks* looked funny.

All mildly amusing, but relatively harmless. And then…

His *buttocks* was a nuisance at school.
Francine, who sat in front of Arthur, complained to the teacher that Arthur’s *buttocks* was always bothering her.

That was when I officially lost it. My wife returned from rinsing out the bathtub to find me red, tear-streaked, and near the point of convulsions. I had a nervously tittering 2-year-old trying to keep her balance on my lap as I sputtered my way through the book in choked clips and broken phrases. I couldn’t even hold it together long enough to explain to my wife what was wrong.

And who can blame me?

Try it yourself. For an extra challenge, try to reimagine the illustrations as you go. If you can keep a straight face, you’re a better person than I.

[And, yes, I’m aware that inserting substituting *penis* instead of *buttocks* results in an equally funny read. And, yes, I’m aware that the first-gen Marc Brown illustrations really take on a new life as a result. But, this is a children’s book we’re talking about here. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU!?!]

Yeah.  You really just read that, Buster.

Yeah. You really just read that, Buster.

I wish I could say that this was the only time my inner adolescent reared his ugly head into storytime. But of course it wasn’t.

Arthur’s Eyes was a dud, but Arthur’s Tooth was an Epic Win from page 1:

Finally, Arthur had a loose *buttocks*.
He wiggled it with his tongue.
He wiggled it with his finger.
He wiggled it all the time.

I won’t spoil it for you, but I can’t deny my glee as I read about Francine’s *buttocks* falling out on her desk during math class, prompting Arthur to get up very early the next day for the sole purpose of wiggling his own loose *buttocks*.

So, next time you’re in the library, don’t be afraid to saunter into the children’s section for a few minutes and indulge your inner-adolescent. And if you find another winner, please let me know.

Story time just might depend on it!

Arthur Library Card

And if anyone can find me a copy of that movie they watch in school, Nasty Mr. *Buttocks* Decay, I will totally give you all my desserts for a month.

REFERENCES

Brown, Marc. Arthur’s Eyes. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1979.

Brown, Marc. Arthur’s Nose. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1976.

Brown, Marc. Arthur’s Tooth. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1985.

Seriously, Marc.  Sorry.

Seriously, Marc. Sorry.

Reading, Writing, and Literacy in the iPad Age

This afternoon I read an entertaining and thought-provoking post by Craig Campbell on ACVoice titled Eric Carle and iPad Babies. Craig raises questions about a generation of “multi-taskers” raised on digital rather than physical media in a world that is increasingly quick to diagnose children with ADHD.

My thoughts, of course, immediately go to my students. Every year I take on 120-150 fresh-faced young charges and get 181 days to instill in them a healthy appreciation for reading and a burgeoning talent for writing. And every year I’m heartbroken by their almost universal inability to focus long enough to finish even a single page of challenging text. This, I tell myself, is exactly why I have a house full of books. It is also why I go out of my way not only to read to my daughter, but to make that time as rewarding and enriching as possible. As she grows up, I want her to simply love reading.

But here I am at my in-laws watching her play with their iPad. And here I am again telling them in no uncertain terms that my 2-year-old does NOT need one of her own.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m neither a technophobe nor a reactionary. My wife and I both have tablets. I use my iPad in the classroom, on the practice field, and in my personal life. My daughter typically gets to play with it for at least few minutes most days. We keep a close eye on her and try very hard to limit that time, though.

Which brings me to my real question: Why? Is it really that big of a deal?

I was an avid video-game player growing up. I practically cut my teeth on an Atari 2600 and spent my formative years growing from the NES to its Super successor and their “boyish” little brother. As my teen years became my twenties, the PS1 became an N64 which was replaced by a PS2 that now shares shelf space with a Nintendo Wii. And I’m already trying to find a way to save up for a WiiU once the 2013 blitz of promised first-party titles makes it worth the money.

On top of all that, I also watched an unhealthy amount of television and blew thousands of dollars at movie theaters.

Add in martial arts, track and field, football, running, weight lifting, and eventually rugby, it’s amazing to think I had the time or the energy to focus on ANYTHING for longer than a few minutes at a time, let alone a book.

But in spite of it all, I was and am still an avid and inquisitive reader.

So I suppose it can be done.

And is a two-year-old spending twenty minutes playing Endless Alphabet really such a bad thing?