Kids like stories about ugly ducklings because, deep down, they all think they’re ugly ducklings. They like stories about Cinderella because they all think they have worth that’s gone unrecognized. They await a prince. They like stories in which characters get lost in the woods because they’ve all felt lost, or feared getting lost, themselves. This is pretty basic stuff: The same myths and fairy tales have replayed across the ages because they connect with feelings that many people have had, everywhere and always.
The same kind of thing applies even if it’s just you writing a story. If you hope to reach an audience, then some character in your story must feel or experience what your audience has felt or experienced. The particulars of their lives may differ wildly, but their take on things must be the same. Your audience and your character must share what I call an affinity.
I wrote last time about an affinity I had—as a kid of 15—for two fictional characters. The first, you’ll recall, was Hamlet. This was quite a big deal for me. Hamlet would say something like, “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow,” and I’d nod and say, “Got it.”
Nevertheless, there was something about Hamlet that put him at a distance. You didn’t feel it on the page, but you felt it watching him onstage or in the movies. Because he’s brilliant, because he’s a good soul, because—well, damn it—he’s a hero, he’s nearly always played by an especially great-looking man. Here are some: John Barrymore, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Kenneth Branaugh, Kevin Kline, Mel Gibson, Ralph Fiennes, Ethan Hawke, and—just recently—Jude Law. No potatoheads need apply.
I was not a hobbling grotesque as a teenager, but I was never going to be cast as the Prince of Denmark. (Did you know, by the way, that Olivier padded his legs for the part? I took comfort in that.) I did spend a lot of time in high school pining miserably for a girl named Marilyn, who was—it could not have been otherwise—a cheerleader. As a bespectacled nerdling who actually wore sweaters to school that his mother knitted, I felt as disqualified from getting the girl as Quasimodo the bell-ringer. So I guess it’s not surprising that Quasimodo was the second of my two fictional soul-mates.
Oh, how I grieved for him—specifically, for him as played by Charles Laughton in the 1939 RKO version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The purest soul who ever lived, the fellow who deserves the gypsy girl Esmeralda more than all the dashing soldiers and poets who want her and who swoops down on a rope to rescue her from the gallows, Quasimodo is disqualified by his ugliness from ever winning her. “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” he shouts, but for his heart there’s none. High on the façade of Notre Dame he sits and watches her ride off to her happiness, and pleads to a silent gargoyle: “Why was I not made of stone like thee?”
A gypsy girl in Paris named Esmeralda. A cheerleader in a suburban high school named Marilyn. They’re the same when it comes to yearning.
At top left is Laurence Olivier as the prince. At bottom right, the great Charles Laughton as the bell-ringer.