Literature Analysis of How to Read Literature Like a Professor: Definition of Characters in Fiction
As a child, it broke my heart to see characters in stories die. I always wondered why characters had to endure so much suffering. It was easy to develop a humanistic connection with characters, and think of them as having a real life story. In Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor, he explains, in contrary to my original theories, “Characters are not people.”
How does this notion, then, explain the heartwrenching death of Mufasa from The Lion King, Wilson from Castaway, and Bubba from Forrest Gump? With Foster’s insight, I am reminded that characters are textual creations of an author, and not people of whom to mourn over. Characters do not exist, except for in the context of a story. This notion has helped my inner child compartmentalize these deaths, as well as understand that supporting characters are used to serve a purpose. Foster suggests, “Never Stand Next To The Hero” in his title. He is illustrating that secondary, flat, and static characters usually die in stories in order to either develop the plot or develop another character. Readers, viewers, and story-lovers see this time and time again in different forms of literature.
In addition to the heart-breaking deaths of characters in prominent films, this concept is resembled in the movie and novel of Suzanne Collins’, The Hunger Games, when the twelve-year-old Rue is killed by a bow to her heart. Before she passes, the young girl asks Katniss Everdeen to sing for her. Katniss sings her a song and holds Rue in her arms while she passes. Prior to Rue’s death, the reader believes Katniss to be strong, willing, and cold-hearted. In the games, the reader only sees a passive side of her—until Rue dies.
After this experience, a motherly, nurturing, and compassionate version of Katniss is revealed. This new perspective further helps the reader understand Katniss’ depth, as well as predicts how she will act in the future. Rue’s death inspires Katniss to fight and win, because she now knows how terrible the other people are when they are willing to kill a little girl. Collins used Rue as an instrument to help the reader see other sides of Katniss and further develop her motives and character.
Foster provides an example in How to Read Literature Like a Professor of other minor roles whose deaths help progress the plot. For example, in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Hamlet’s childhood friends. Their objective in the story is to distract Hamlet from his corrupt uncle, King Claudius. Other than this goal, their deaths and feelings are close to irrelevant in the story Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not essential to the story of Hamlet, but their small roles help set up the story and understand Hamlet in a new way.
There seems to be strict guidelines in regards to defining characters, but in another work, however, Tom Stoppard breaks such rules of minor characters and creates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He ingeniously transforms Rosencrantz and Guilernstein into the main characters, giving them depth and illustrating their characters outside of the specific context of the original Hamlet. Stoppard is discovering what the characters do in their time offstage when they are not sabotaging Hamlet for their own benefit.
Chapter Ten of How to Read Literature Like a Professor highlights the important elements of stories and how they all come together to build the plot. Minor characters serve a purpose of developing main characters, such as Rue showing a compassionate side of Katniss and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern revealing Hamlet’s wit. It is helpful for readers to understand this insight when experiencing any type of story.
Without the death of Mufasa, Simba never would have become king. Without the departure of Wilson in the ocean, perhaps Chuck Noland would not have gained the confidence and urge to find his way home. Without Bubba’s passing, Forrest Gump might not have understood true friendship or opened up “Bubba Gump Shrimp Company”.
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