“Diving Into Character”

I often remember characters from novels, and I can come to think of them as real people. Sometimes an author uses the same cast of characters throughout a series of novels. Many times these characters remain pretty static and they don’t seem further developed from book to book. The detective remains pretty much the same throughout the books, for instance.

Elizabeth Strout presents the reader with a contrasting approach. After writing Olive Kittredge in 2008, she let her character rest in subsequent books. But in 2019 she published Olive, Again as if she, as a writer, had been unable to forget about Olive, wondered what had happened to her in the intervening years, and decided to tell us.

Strout’s books focus on character, rather than plot. As I have become older, I am more interested in character development and less in plot, so they are a good match for me. Olive, in the first book, presented as a cantankerous Maine woman, difficult to like, who grew on the reader as we encountered her in a series of short stories. We saw various aspects of her, and understood that she was as complicated as most people.

Olive, revisited, shows us the woman, still cranky, still opinionated, and still uncomfortable with herself most of the time. But throughout this book Olive has moments of self reflection. She begins to think about herself in a new way, as a wife, as a parent, as a teacher and as a neighbor. As she becomes self aware, we find a new level of compassion for this old woman. I suspect that is what Strout herself felt about Olive as the years passed between books. Olive was worth another look.

I appreciated the evidence that even in late life a person can soften some, can connect more deeply with others, and can feel, with self-compassion, some regret. May it be so with all of us.

36 thoughts on ““Diving Into Character”

  1. I found I had a greater capacity for love as I got older. Perhaps younger folks are too busy getting through life to spend time loving people. That’s interesting that the author let the character age and develop from one book to another.

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  2. The flip side of the age coin is that many young people seem to (perhaps subconsciously) regard old people as irrelevant to their life, even if they’re close relatives. I must confess to having such feelings when I was young, except when an elderly relative took a personal interest in me and made me feel “important” to him or her.

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  3. I liked your following statement Elizabeth,
    “I appreciated the evidence that even in late life a person can soften some, can connect more deeply with others, and can feel, with self-compassion, some regret. May it be so with all of us.”
    I agree! Life’s experiences has a tendency to soften our resolve, although there are those who become more embittered.
    Bless you,
    Jennifer

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  4. I think it’s great to develop a cast of characters throughout a series. Each can have their own little storyline which sees them change over the course of the saga and so when they re-appear, it means a little more. This sounds like an excellent work and a very courageous move by the author. Thank you so much for sharing!

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  5. Thank you for this post, Betsy! I loved reading Olive Kitteridge. I think I was surprised to find myself adoring a character who I’m sure I would have disliked as a younger reader trained on “preferred,” “idealized” female “types.” I also loved Frances McDormand’s interpretation of Olive in the HBO series. Did you have a chance to view it? Olive, Again has been very popular with the Chicago Public Library system – whenever I have tried to borrow a copy, I get the “all copies in use” message.

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