Friday, April 8, 2011

G is for Great Characters and Gertrude

What makes a great character? Often the most memorable ones aren't even the hero of the story - think Wicked Witch of the West or Severus Snape or Fagan from Oliver Twist. And the most memorable protagonists usually come close to crossing the line between hero and villian - think Scarlett O'Hara.

Character actor Willem Dafoe was once asked if he found it more interesting to play heroes or villians. He answered, "I don’t know what hero and villain is. I like to think I play heroic bad guys and villainous heroes ."

The main "villain" of my childhood, was, sadly, my maternal grandmother. Her name was Gertrude and she was a narcissist and an emotional terrorist.  She demanded center stage at all times. If she wasn't getting it, she would make sure she did by any means possible - starting a fight, slinging cruel insults,  demanding to be taken home. Her main target was my mother, who had been cowed by her bully-mother since childhood. I envied my friends when they talked about their beloved Nanas, who spoiled them and showered them with gifts and love. In our house, it better be the other way around, or there would be hell to pay.

That's my story. Now let's hear her tell it:

"I grew up outside of Chester, England, the oldest of 8 children. For as long as I can remember, I had to help Mother with my younger siblings. I was more like a junior mother than an older sister. My father was a milkman and a drunkard. When I was 15, I found him hanging from a rafter in our barn, a rope around his neck, and a step stool kicked to the side.

"When I was 18, I left home to make my way in the world. I met Arthur Simm - tall, handsome and a scrapper. I thought he would protect and take care of me. We married and decided to go to America. I was petrified at the thought of leaving my mother and my home, but I gulped down my fear and boarded the ship. We settled in New Jersey, and soon after, had a daughter, Gwen.

"Well, they say that women marry their fathers, and I guess that's what I'd done, because Arthur was a drinker and a rake. He worked as a duty officer on ships, so he was seldom home. When Gwen was 8, Arthur left and never came back again. Alone now with my daughter, I had to find work. But who would hire me, with no husband and a child hanging off me? So I sent Gwen to live with her grandmother in England."

There's more to her story of course - times of happiness, and many more times of sorrow and disappointment. But this is enough to make the point. Great characters are formed by complicated histories, by life's ups and downs, by triumphs and tragedies. They are never all good or all bad. It's all a matter of perspective really: To me, Grandma Gertrude was the villain in my mother's story and our childhood. But to Grandma, well, she thought she was the hero of the story. So don't be surprised if some complicated Gertrude-esque hero-villain shows up in one of my stories some day....


  1. This is wonderful -- there is a story there!!!!!

  2. I agree with RV, there is a story here! Wonderful example of how complicated people really are. I'd love to read a story with a Gertrude-esque character!

  3. That was very well put. It is like a song that says you never know the sorrow in someone elses heart.

  4. Yes, people are complicated, and so much bad behavior comes from deep-seated fear. It doesn't make what they do all right, but it helps us understand.


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