Monday, January 17, 2011

Reading Like a Writer: Academic January, The Character-Oriented Novel

Academic January continues. This is week three in our series on examining Character Desire and Plot. In week one, the parameters of the discussion were introduced. In week two, we examined Sharon Darrow’s The Painters of Lexieville, our action oriented example and here we are in week three taking a closer look at one of my very favorite novels, Because of Winn-Dixie.

Character-Oriented: Because of Winn-Dixie

    Unlike the action-oriented novel where the emphasis is on how the external events shape the main character, the character-oriented novel relies on character development as its driving force. Yet this does not mean a character-oriented novel, such as Kate DiCamillo’s Newberry Honor book Because of Winn-Dixie, is without plot. Burroway quotes nineteenth-century German critic Gustav Freitag as stating: 
[plot is comprised of a] pyramid of five actions: an exposition, followed by a complication (or nouement, “knotting up” of the situation) leading to a crisis, which is followed by a “falling action” or anticlimax, resulting in the denouement. (40)
    DiCamillo arranges her story structure with these same building blocks. However, since the emphasis in a character-oriented novel is on what the character is experiencing emotionally, not on the action of the plot, how DiCamillo develops her characters is critical.  
    Like Darrow, DiCamillo’s first task is to develop her implicit promise—the contract from writer to reader that hints at character, conflict, setting, and tone (Kress 7-8). Whereas Darrow demonstrated her novel’s implicit promise by outlining her main character’s desire amid key action scenes, DiCamillo’s approach is not as easily deciphered.
    DiCamillo relies heavily on her novel’s title to convey the implicit promise. The prepositional phrase title, Because of Winn Dixie, seems to answer a question. The reader opens the book on a mission to discover what that question could be. In chapter one the reader learns that Winn-Dixie is a stray dog and in chapter two that his rescuer, India Opal Buloni, is new to Naomi, Florida. The new girl in town is a common story problem. Therefore, the reader may guess the novel will focus on how India Opal Buloni’s life changes after moving. How or why does her life change?  Because of Winn-Dixie, of course, the scruffy dog she drags home from his namesake, the Winn-Dixie supermarket.
    On the surface level Because of Winn-Dixie is about a girl and her dog. Yet, as Noah Lukeman in The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life states, “The task of a writer… is to create characters on the verge of change, characters that will, in some way be unrecognizable by the end of the work” (82). In a character-oriented novel, having characters that are on the verge of change is a key way that an author may depict what it is the main character longs for.
   Therefore, to discover what character change Because of Winn-Dixie hinges on, one should look at how DiCamillo depicts India Opal as protagonist and the father, as the most important secondary character, early on in the novel. As the book opens, the two are not at odds with one another, but the readers senses India Opal’s loneliness and her father’s emotional reserve. The eventual outcome this beginning suggests is that the father-and-daughter pair must make a satisfying connection to one another to be unrecognizable by the novel’s end.
    In examining India Opal’s relationship with her father, the reader begins to identify the over-arching story problem. India Opal is lonely, not simply because she is the new girl in town, but because she yearns for a parental connection. India Opal assumes her long absent mother will fulfill this longing. With Winn-Dixie by her side, India Opal has the courage to ask the preacher ten things about her mama, one for each year she has been alive. The preacher begrudgingly shares this information and India Opal rushes to her room.
         I wrote them down just the way he said them to me so I wouldn’t forget them,
         and then I read them out loud to Winn-Dixie until I had them memorized. I 
         wanted to know those ten things inside and out. That way, if my mama ever
         came back, I could recognize her, and I would be able to grab her and hold on to   
         her tight and not let her get away from me again. (DiCamillo 29-30)
    However, the reader suspects what India Opal does not. The parental connection India Opal longs for will not be forged with her mother, but with her father.
    To render this relationship unrecognizable by the novel’s end, DiCamillo uses a common character development technique. She shifts the portrayal of the father from a flat into a round character. This is not the only character development technique at work in the book, but it is the one that supports the overarching story-problem of India Opal’s establishing a deeper parental connection.  
    By definition, a flat character is one-dimensional and is often depicted as a stereotypical caricature. A round character, one who grows and changes, is more complex. DiCamillo’s first line of business is to portray the father as flat and one-dimensional in India Opal’s eyes:
My daddy is a good preacher and a nice man, but sometimes it’s hard for me to think about him as my daddy, because he spends so much time preaching or thinking about preaching or getting ready to preach. And so in my mind I think of him as “the preacher.” (13) 
    Here India Opal labels her father as his job title, preacher, versus his family title, Daddy. This is a subtle way for DiCamillo to allow room for India Opal’s character growth. Also, it paints a one-dimensional portrait of the father where the reader is encouraged to bring any and all preconceived notions to the reading. Whether or not the assumptions prove to be correct do not matter. What does matter is DiCamillo’s characterization of the preacher. For the time being, he is flat.
    DiCamillo then further shades the father’s characterization by using an extended metaphor to personify his most distinguishable character trait, his silence. In the first scene in which India Opal and her father interact, India Opal thinks: “Sometimes he reminded me of a turtle hiding inside its shell, in there thinking about things and not ever sticking his head out into the world” (DiCamillo 16). The stereotype of the preacher is now coupled with the caricature of a turtle-man. 
    The novel’s rising action does not rest solely on the various ways Winn-Dixie brings friendship and joy to India Opal’s lonely world. Midway through the novel, Winn-Dixie, the dog symbol of unconditional love, begins to work his magic on the emotionally distant father-daughter relationship. Here, DiCamillo starts to shift the characterization of the father, depicting him as slightly more complex. During a thunderstorm India Opal worries that the preacher will not tolerate Winn-Dixie’s pathological fear of storms. Yet, the father surprises India Opal, and thus the reader, by putting his arm around the dog and responding: “We have to make sure he doesn’t get out during a storm. He might run away. We have to keep him safe” (DiCamillo 78). India Opal is filled with a rush of love.
All of a sudden it was hard for me to talk. I loved the preacher so much. I loved him because he loved Winn-Dixie. I loved him because he was going to forgive Winn-Dixie for being afraid. But most of all, I loved hum for putting his arm around Winn-Dixie like that, like he was already trying to keep him safe. (DiCamillo 78) 
    This is the reader’s last exposure to the father before the climax where DiCamillo assembles the entire cast of characters at a party, thrown by India Opal, to celebrate her family of friends. However, the father’s characterization from a flat into a round character has not been completed. The father-daughter pair still must forge a new bond for their relationship to be unrecognizable by the end of the work.
    To accomplish this task, DiCamillo weaves the various story threads together when a boomer of a thunderstorm puts a damper on the party’s festivities. Amid all the rushing and racing, Winn-Dixie disappears. After searching all over town, the preacher is ready to give up. A hurt India Opal yells: “You’re always pulling your head inside your stupid old turtle shell. I bet you didn’t even go out looking for my mama when she left. I bet you let her run off, too” (DiCamillo 165). When the preacher begins to cry in response, DiCamillo juxtaposes the early image of the father as “turtle” that India is still upset with, with the vulnerable dad the preacher has become.
We stood there hugging and rocking back and forth, and after awhile the preacher stopped shaking and I still held onto him; and I finally got the nerve to ask the question I wanted to ask.
            “Do you think she’s ever going to come back?” I whispered. (DiCamillo 166)
    DiCamillo waits until this moment to have India ask about her mother’s return. It is not until the father develops from a one-dimensional caricature, to a fully rounded character, that India Opal is able to speak of her deep-seated wish. It fits for this declaration to come at the climax of the book, rather than at the beginning of the novel, because it has taken the building of the story events to bring India Opal to this moment of catharsis. India Opal is ready to hear the “no” she knows is coming and her father is ready to speak it. At this point, the two are a full family, without the mother and for the time being even without bridge-builder Winn-Dixie.
    In reviewing Weiss’s earlier-cited definition, a character-oriented novel should keep its emphasis “on what the character is experiencing emotionally rather than on the action itself. Character development rather than plot is moving us through the story” (Pattison 2). DiCamillo’s early portrayal of the preacher leaves room for the conflict of the story to shape both the preacher and India Opal. His emergence as a round character is hard won and takes his daughter, the protagonist, to free him from his “old turtle shell.”  This done, India Opal’s journey is complete; she has achieved what she has longed for, a deep parental connection.
    As previously mentioned, developing a primary secondary character from a flat into a round character is not the only character development technique DiCamillo employs in Because of Winn-Dixie. She builds scenes upon scene in which India Opal meets and begins to love characters with a “checkered” past in order to heal her own. Among these characters are: Otis, a guitar strumming pet store owner and former convict and Gloria Dump, a strange old lady and recovering alcoholic who has become a mother-figure in India Opal’s life. Through developing strong ties with these two characters India Opal’s forgiveness for her mother, whose drinking was the reason she abandoned India Opal, grows. And perhaps of more importance, these supporting character relationships prepare India Opal to forge a closer bond with her father.
    India Opal’s new family, a rag-tag bunch of Naomi citizens, an ugly dog, and her father, satisfies her innermost longings. The fact that one has to look so closely at how DiCamillo achieved this effect demonstrates how crucial character development is in the plot construction of a character-oriented novel.

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