I’ve always loved reading. Books can be so powerful, so magical in their ability to transport us to a different world and place and community. To introduce us to characters who inspire some emotion in us, whether it be irritation or empathy or pity, who intrigue and pull us in, whether we like them or not or whether we want them to or not.
Now that I’ve begun writing fiction, I read novels with different eyes. Oh, not as if studying for a creative writing class where the homework assignment is “Analyze and Dissect xxx Book.” That would strip all the pleasure out. But it’s great to learn from other writers, both in terms of what to do and sometimes, to be honest, what not to do.
I just finished The Girl on the Train. (Here’s a separate review on GoodReads.) What impressed me about this book (and don’t worry, no spoilers here!) is how quickly and powerfully the main protagonist came alive for me.
Rachel is a troubled woman, an alcoholic struggling to pull herself out of the depression that has engulfed her. She becomes obsessed by the disappearance of Megan, who lives on the same street where Rachel once lived with her ex-husband. A street Rachel sees every morning and evening from the train she takes into London and back. Sees the street, the houses, and the people who live there, including her ex-husband and his new wife, and cannot stop thinking about them and about her former life.
Rachel is convinced she knows something that could help solve the mystery and inserts herself into the investigation. No, not as an amateur sleuth, but as a woman desperate to help, to be of service in some way. She blunders, she lies, she goes on the wagon and then falls off again and again. She all but stalks her ex-husband, enraging his wife who suspects Rachel of wanting to harm her child.
Despite being warned off by police, her ex-husband, and ultimately Megan’s husband, Rachel stumbles her way forward. And one reason is she fears, deeply, that she is somehow connected to Megan’s disappearance. She knows she was on Megan’s street the night she vanished, that she pounded on her ex-husband’s door, but recalls nothing more than vague sensations of fear and danger because she was in a drunken stupor, barely able to make her way home.
My heart ached for Rachel even as I shook my head at decisions she made, decisions that led only to more trouble and grief for her but that could be perfectly rational to a mind affected by alcohol and loneliness.
I’m re-reading the book now, something I rarely do right away, because I want to experience again how Paula Hawkins made Rachel such a palpably real character. (You can read two scenes from the book here, on Ray Rhamey’s blog post, though I disagree with him on the first page, which I found compelling.)
What is it about a character that pulls you in? What do you want to see?