Saturday, February 20, 2010

MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD: Contrasting characters

Dear Meg and Allyson,

One of the things that I noticed when reading Marcelo in the Real World was the way Francisco X. Stork developed contrasting pairs of characters.

For example, Marcelo and Wendell are an obvious pair. Both boys are spending their summer vacations working at the law firm that their fathers founded (Sandoval and Holmes).

Despite their surface similarities, however, they are very different people. Marcelo is an intellectual person who loves music and religious thinking. Wendell is… well, more physically oriented. Marcelo is the son of the “Minority hire” lawyer. Wendell is the son of “an old Boston family” (p 127).

Marcelo and Wendell represent opposite extremes in their approaches to work, life, love, ethics, etc., and Stork uses these opposing or contrasting views almost like a physical force. For example, Wendell pushes Marcelo about inviting Jasmine to his boat, and Marcelo resists. The more Marcelo resists, the harder Wendell pushes.

Karl Iglesias, author of Writing for Emotional Impact, says that,

Contrast is another form of conflict, which always brings character to the surface and creates clarity… Contrasting a character with another [character] distinguishes and reveals their personalities. It can also spice up a story when other elements are contrasted, such as different ambitions, motivations, backgrounds, goals, attitudes and values (p. 57).
Marcelo and Wendell are not the only such contrasting pair in Marcelo in the Real World. Jasmine and Juliet are another pair, each providing office support,one as mail room manager, the other as an executive assistant, in the law firm. Wendell summarizes their differences by explaining their “feminine beauty” to Marcelo.
… Juliet there across the hall is a representative of the Elegant Woman. Elegants are usually on the thin side. Their demeanor is cold and unapproachable.
Jasmine, on the other hand, is an Elemental.
The attractive force behind Elemental beauty is that it holds out the promise of totality, of full, complete and never-ending satisfaction… she has all the elements that make up womanhood, but in an understated way… (pp. 89-90).
Of course, Juliet and Jasmine’s differences extend far beyond their looks to how they approach their jobs and how they treat others.

Another contrasting pair consists of Marcelo’s father, Arturo Sandoval, and Jerry Garcia, the lawyer representing the young girl in the picture Marcelo finds. Both men are Harvard-educated attorneys who graduated the same year. They were two of just seven Mexican-Americans in the school.

But Arturo went on to professional success, creating his own law firm representing large corporations. He lives in the suburbs and drives a sports car to work. Jerry chose a different path, opening “a solo practice in a poor neighborhood” where he provides legal assistance to Spanish-speaking clients (p. 190).

Although Stork has ample material for conflict between these three pairs of characters, he then uses the pairs to develop interesting triangles of conflict (think “love triangle,” although as you will see, love isn’t always the issue at hand).

An obvious example is the triangle between Marcelo, Wendell and Jasmine. Wendell has the hots for Jasmine. Jasmine abhors Wendell. Marcelo wants to be friends with both. How will he handle Wendell’s increasing demands for help “getting Jasmine”?

A more subtle triangle is that between Marcelo, Wendell and Arturo. In this case, Arturo seems to wish Marcelo were more like Wendell. Arturo tells Marcelo, “…there is no need for you and Jasmine to be friends…. You should make friends with Wendell. He can be helpful to you” (p. 103). Marcelo wants to please his father, but for much of the book neither Arturo nor Marcelo seems to see Wendell as he truly is. Will they get caught in Wendell’s manipulations?

As the novel unfolds, much of its complexity evolves out of the many relationships between pairs of characters as well as different triangular variations (e.g. Marcelo-Arturo-Jerry, Marcelo-Arturo-Jasmine). These relationships cause conflict for Marcelo. They force him into uncomfortable positions where he must sort out right from wrong. They push him into making difficult choices. And they force him to see people and situations for what they really are.

StorySleuths Tip #48: Use contrast as a method to build conflict and reveal character. Look for ways to develop connections between contrasting pairs of characters, and then increase the conflict by adding a third person to the relationship for even more tension.