No Ordinary People

30 May 2013

"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal." — C.S. Lewis
My sisters, mother, and I recently began officially watching Downton Abbey and have fallen head over heels in love as a result. (It only took us twelve months, Näna!) This popular BBC television series known for its enviable costumes, lush setting, and drama mingled with a deal of British wit and spice has — thus far — lived up to all our expectations. It's one true issue (aside from a few indecencies that require skipping) is that it keeps us up late o' nights, for one can never watch just one Downton episode!

One of my favorite aspects of this series is how the servants play such a critical role in the progression of the plot. On the surface, it would seem that the Crawley family and their affairs should take center stage — and to some extent, they do. But if it weren't for Downton's minor characters and their own histories, fears, and loves, the show would be rather flat. In the third season (which I have yet to see), the Dowager Countess supposedly says, "An aristocrat with no servants is as much use to the county as a glass hammer." In the same way, major characters, without the balance and interest brought to the book by minor characters, serve little purpose.

I don't know about you, but in my case, minor characters have a penchant for popping up of their own accord. I can spend months trying to learn about the complex people I've set at the center of my story and struggle with it the whole time, while it takes only an afternoon for a dozen or so more obscure and impromptu personages to introduce themselves. Ethan Hartley in Violets Are Blue was one such character. Violet meets him early on in the book at the butcher's shop, but neither she nor I expected to do more in that scene than purchase a pound or two of meat, pay for it, and leave. (Apparently Ethan had other ideas . . .) All of a sudden she was introducing herself to a perfect stranger who was a bit older, a bit cheekier, and a bit more knowledgeable about her and her family than he ought. As the story progressed, Ethan elbowed his way to the front, eventually becoming a little more than just a minor character, which has happened to me before as well.

There are two types of minor characters that I've experienced: those who appear without warning, but allow the story to pass without too much alteration, and those who nudge and strain until they're practically main characters in their own right. Ethan, despite his aforementioned elbowing, occupies the first position: he is still a minor character, though an important one. Kenneth Hughes, on the other hand, entered Rifles in the South Field with all his British aplomb and demanded his share of the narrative. His own side of the story swiftly grew so significant that I was forced to write the book from two perspectives in order to round out the plot. Even now, the lad doesn't seem content and occasionally attempts to push Susannah's status as the book's true major character below his own, but I'm not going to let him get away with that.

We're all aware that a story wouldn't be — well, a story without minor characters. That requires little explanation. But what is it exactly that makes those lesser-known characters so intriguing? And how do we keep from losing the significance of our major characters in the process?

The answer, I've discovered, boils down to our perspective.

C.S. Lewis famously said, "There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal." Not surprisingly — we are speaking of Lewis, you understand — he was spot-on. Downton Abbey, like every other well-written story, captures my attention because every single character is treated as an individual with a unique role in the story. Not one person was thrown in without good reason. As a result, the screentime devoted to minor characters is just as interesting as the scenes starring Lord and Lady Grantham. The story would not progress with the same measure of appeal if this were not the case, and this applies to books as well.

The first step to writing your lesser characters purposefully is to know your characters. This is something of a given, but I feel I should highlight it all the same. Abigail wisely recommended writing a short story about a minor character as a means of learning more about their personal aspirations, fears, and motives. I haven't tried this myself, but I believe it would work quite well. The idea is to crack into the head of every one of your characters, even if the reader won't be spending a large amount of time there themselves. If you're familiar with your characters — what draws their attention, what makes them cry, what they love more than life itself — everything from dialogue to plot development rolls smoother. Never make the mistake of thinking someone who plays a very small role doesn't deserve a background of his own. His history may not be prevalent to this story, but that's not to say it doesn't exist and won't influence his decisions.

The second step is to know the role they play. I mentioned before that minor characters have a habit of showing up uninvited. In the course of writing a scene, especially if said scene belongs in the first draft of an unfinished novel, any number of people can appear for the sake of adding interest at the moment. That is not to say that they necessarily need to crop up again later on in the story or even be in the scene in the first place. An abundance of minor characters that hold little import in the long run only add unnecessary weight to a book. If you don't know the significance of a character — any character — in your novel, he or she may not be essential to the plot after all.

In the end, it all comes back to Lewis's principle of no mere mortals. Every man has a past all his own, whether the author chooses to reveal it within the book or not. Understanding this and using it appropriately gives your characters an additional dimension, that elusive element readers recognize in a well-written book and can only fittingly explain as "the characters felt real."

And if you ask any author, he'll tell you that no four words so warm the cockles of his heart.

I'll See You In the Land of Books: Summer 2013 Reading List

20 May 2013

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”  —Jane Austen
The calendar pointedly informs me that it's still May, but with both my sophomore year of high school and my spring dance recital behind me, the season of summer has — in my mind, at least — officially begun. As if to herald its arrival, this morning I awoke to tangible streams of sunlight beaming through my bedroom window with all the joy and radiance of a June day come two weeks early. I'm currently at a very tenuous period of freedom in these next few weeks, as the arrival of June means a summer job, a family trip, teaching at dance camp, and many other fun but time-consuming tasks. (I'm also determined to get my license this year, which means enrolling in driver's ed, a tedious, though necessary occupation.) Since reading time this summer won't be as plentiful as it has been in the past, I'm determined to make the most of the leisure hours I do have, which brings me to the purpose of this post.

Last June I posted a list of the books I hoped to finish over the summer. It was a rather fun idea that came to me spontaneously, and it also helped to keep me both motivated and organized in the weeks that followed. My reading list did morph and shift several times, though, and not many of the titles on the original list were actually completed, as they were traded for other volumes. Though I expect something of the sort may happen again this year, that's no reason not to set down an organized record as a means of staying accountable with my literary goals over the summer.

Thus, I give you my incredibly ambitious book list.


The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë


John Adams by David McCullough
1776 by David McCullough (I really need to finish this one!)
Saratoga by Richard M. Ketchum
Victory at Yorktown by Richard M. Ketchum
Jane Austen and Her Times, 1775—1817 by Geraldine Edith Mitton


The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Tales of Goldstone Wood [including Veiled Rose, Moonblood, Starflower, and Dragonwitch] by Anne Elisabeth Stengl


The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers
Letters to a Diminished Church by Dorothy Sayers
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

what are you reading this summer?

Sunday Blessings

19 May 2013


Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.

Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.

Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.

— "Take My Life, and Let it Be" by Frances R. Havergal

May your Lord's Day be blessed!
"I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service." — Romans 12:1

Poem of the Week: A Second Childhood by G.K. Chesterton

17 May 2013

A Second Childhood
By G.K. Chesterton

When all my days are ending
And I have no song to sing,
I think that I shall not be too old
To stare at everything;
As I stared once at a nursery door
Or a tall tree and a swing.

Wherein God's ponderous mercy hangs
On all my sins and me, 
Because He does not take away 
The terror from the tree
And stones still shine along the road 
That are and cannot be. 

Men grow too old for love, my love, 
Men grow too old for wind, 
But I shall not grow too old to see
Unearthly daylight shine,
Changing my chamber's dust to snow 
Till I doubt if it be mine. 

Behold, the crowning mercies melt, 
The first surprises stay; 
And in my dross is dropped a gift 
For which I dare not pray: 
That a man grow used to grief and joy
But not to night and day. 

Men grow too old for love, my love, 
Men grow too old for lies; 
But I shall not grow too old to see 
Enormous night arise, 
A cloud that is larger than the world
And a monster made of eyes. 

Nor am I worthy to unloose 
The latchet of my shoe; 
Or shake the dust from off my feet 
Or the staff that bears me through 
On ground that is too good to last, 
Too solid to be true. 

Men grow too old to woo my love, 
Men grow too old to wed; 
But I shall not grow too old to see 
Hung crazily overhead 
Incredible rafters when I wake
And find that I am not dead. 

A thrill of thunder in my hair: 
Though blackening clouds be plain, 
Still I am stung and startled 
By the first drop of the rain: 
Romance and pride and passion pass
And these are what remain. 

Strange crawling carpets of the grass, 
Wide windows of the sky;
So in this perilous grace of God
With all my sins go I: 
And things grow new though I grow old,
Though I grow old and die. 

Chesterton's words touch me so; I only hope they affect you in a likewise manner. Have a blessed Friday, friends.

Something Formidable This Way Comes

13 May 2013

The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one which makes you think. — Harper Lee
The bookstore had a good old musk...There's been a great deal of past discussion on Literary Lane on the subject of required reading. For the longest time, I believed it to be a terrible imposition inflicted upon the naive student by particularly vindictive instructors whose sole purpose was to enforce a love of literature into said student by way of hammer and chisel. At the time that I held that belief, however, I was not much acquainted with the true value of the thing, and my own assumptions were somewhat biased. It took several years for me to loosen my balled-up fists and accept the fact that reading for school does serve a purpose.

Before I reached eighth grade, the required reading to which I was exposed was of a wholly different nature than that with which I am now accustomed. I had reading assignments for school, but they generally took me no more than hour to complete, leaving the rest of my leisure time to volumes of my choosing. My literary intake flourished as a result. All that changed when I entered the tutorial at which I currently study, and I was introduced to an entirely new brand of required reading: that is to say, the sort that occupies your entire week. The number of pages I was expected to read jumped from twenty to two hundred and twenty. My time was no longer my own. And what's more, I didn't like the books I was reading! (Horrors, I know.)

I've copied out endless lists of the books I want to read in future. Dickens, Tolkien, Lewis, Austen . . . each name figures upon the page. And with the arrival of each new school year, I anxiously scan the book list that my mother prints out in search of familiar faces. If I'm lucky, I'll recognize two or three of the titles; they may even be replicas of those found in my own lists. But the majority of the titles are foreign to my eyes.

There's a difference between a student who rarely picks up a book that isn't a fluffy YA novel and a truly invested reader who seeks to learn and grow by testing his mental capacity with the books he reads. I'm not aiming this post towards those who have to be forced to read, balk at a book numbering more than a couple hundred pages, and utilize Spark Notes and Wikipedia for quizzes and essays. I know that most of you follow Literary Lane because you are avid bookworms in your own right. Assuming our own to-read lists contain classic works of fiction and other wholesome titles, is there still some value to be found in the required reading given by an outside source? Is there more we can gain from stepping outside our comfort zone?

Surprisingly enough, yes, there is.

Over the course of the past three years I've spent in my homeschool tutorial, I've been exposed to a number of titles I would have never encountered or considered on my own. Books like Rebecca, White Fang, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom ComeWatership Down, Frankenstein, and yes, even The Scarlet Pimpernel were all unknown to me. Surprisingly enough, some of these books (and others I haven't mentioned) are now treasured favorites with worn covers that attest to multiple readings. I could easily see myself enjoying the Victorian classics to which I frequently limited myself, but what pleasure can be gained from a book about a Siberian husky-dog or a tale of rabbits finding a new home for themselves? Is it possible for such a love to spring from an assigned list? I learned the answer to my skeptical question soon enough.

This past school year, my World Literature course not only opened my eyes to pieces of literature I hadn't read but didn't even recognize. Cry, the Beloved Country wrenched my heart, The Metamorphosis gave me eerie chills, Oedipus Rex fascinated me, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight spawned a greater love for Arthurian legend and the traits of chivalry and honor within me. Many of these works' authors used a new form of narration with which I was unfamiliar, effectively forcing me out of my comfort zone and opening my eyes to a whole new world of literature. I've been challenged to catch symbolism, foreshadowing, and allusions within even the most complicated web of text . . . and somehow, it's still worth it. Without setting aside my own desires for a time, trusting my instructor that these books, though unheard of to me, are revered for a reason, and reading the dreaded literature, my own perception of the written word would have remained one-dimensional.

It requires a measure of patience to accept the fact that a list of unfamiliar books will replace the ones I would prefer to read, at least for the current school year. Eleventh grade in particular is promising to be a challenge, as the realm of American Literature does not possess much enduring hope within its pages. Nonetheless, I've never regretted the choice to read these required books. Mansfield Park may be a more enjoyable piece to read, but that's not to say The Chosen and Watership Down weren't just as worthwhile.

And who knows? Maybe I'll find a brand-new favorite in some of the coming year's titles.
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