Fictional characters aren’t meant to be role models. They make mistakes, sometimes big ones, and if they didn’t have some sort of Achilles heel, they wouldn’t be very interesting to read about. At least for me, when I read a book, if I don’t empathisize with a character, I am not as drawn in. Except for books by Gillian Flynn. Those suck me in even though almost all of the characters are despicable!
Sometimes I get lucky and really identify with a character, feeling like I know them or am them. The first time I can remember this really hitting me deeply was reading Wind in the Willows as a child and imaging myself as Mole. Not the jaunty Ratty or crazed Toad or wise Badger, but the loyal and kind-natured Mole, who shyly longed for adventures and didn’t always make the best choices but always meant well.
Then there was Harriet the Spy. Again, there were of course differences. I was no more a “tom boy” living in Manhattan with a nanny than I was a talking mole wearing a suit. But I was still her in my mind, clever (but not quite clever enough; things backfire) and misunderstood and nosy and I loved tomato sandwiches. I wouldn’t eat anything else for lunch during my Harriet phase.
I read and read Daddy Long-Legs over so many times, I could recite long bits by heart when I was a teenager. I still feel all warm and fuzzy just thinking about curling up in a chair with this book and losing myself in the letters Judy writes to her unknown guardian. She’s small and perky and sometimes unsure of herself. Her adventures in college were probably what inspired me to want to go to Mount Holyoke, which I didn’t get to do, but I had images of myself being a 1980s Judy Abbott there. By the way, don’t bother with the movie version. It bears no resemblence to the book. Do read the sequel, Dear Enemy.
I heard on an NPR story once that part of the appeal in fictional characters and seeing ourselves in them is that they can do the things we can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t. Like spying on people (Harriet) or having lovely romances (Judy, who I lived vicariously through during my lonely teen years) or hating everything (Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye) or saying smart-ass things to others or some of the horrible things Gillian Flynn’s characters do (just read the books).
I am going through this magical experience of losing myself in a character with Shelby Richmond, the central character in Alice Hoffman’s Faithful. I am a big Alice Hoffman fan. Bingeing on her books got me through a dark and cold Massachussetts winter (long story, but I hightailed it back to California after that one winter).
On the surface, Shelby and I don’t have a lot in common. She’s young and beautiful. I picture a Natalie Portman type in the lead role should it become a movie.
I’ve never shaved my head or deliberately cut myself. Shelby is very dark and moody. Not quite Gillian Flynn dark and moody, but still dark and moody. She’s brutally honest and sometimes reckless. She loves New York City, having grown up in the suburbs on Long Island. I tend to smiles and hugs and although I’ve visited New York, I feel no need to spend a lot of time there. She mostly eats Chinese takeout; not my thing.
So, why do I see myself in her? Early on in the story, she thinks about how much she prefers sad songs that dwell on lost loves and lost lives. That’s me! Okay, not enough evidence. That’s lots of people.
I never contemplated suicide, but I spent a few years not really living, hiding in my darkened den and drinking too much while watching The Food Network. Shelby spends 2 years isolating herself in her parent’s basement, smoking weed and watching American Idol. And how does she begin to rescue herself? By rescuing animals. Bingo!
She eventually volunteers at an animal shelter (see, what did I tell you?), knowing she needs to be with animals. She even applies to veterinary school, something I would be too scared to do but daydreamed about at some point (NPR may be on to something). She’s not a vegan, but I think Ms. Hoffman could’ve easily made Shelby a vegetarian, given her love for animals.
When people talk about doppelgängers, they usually mean a look-alike, an evil twin, or an almost ghostly apparition.
But doppelgänger can also refer to a person who is behaviorally like another person. When Shelby, feeling vengeful and bitter, wishes bad luck to her former boyfriend and is glad when it snows on his April wedding day to someone else, it reminds me of me wishing bad things on people who I’ve felt wronged by. Shelby loves animals and claims to hate people, but she takes soup to the homeless girl (who seems to be her doppelgänger) she often sees on the streets. She doesn’t have a lot of friends, but she is faithful to the ones she has. She learns to care for others and for herself. I haven’t finished the book, so I can’t say how I will feel about the ending or what path Shelby takes. But I am on the path with her.