Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A lesson in characterization: my favorite Egyptian hacker

A question over on Nathan Bransford's blog got me thinking about my favorite characters. In previous years, if someone asked me who my favorite character in a novel was, I'd hem and haw about it for a good ten minutes and then come up with a comprehensive top five list. They'd all be from books I read in high school or early college, and it would flip from week to week who was at the top. Sam Gamgee for his tear-jerking loyalty? The narrator from Perks of Being a Wallflower for making me believe he's a real person while I'm reading? Max from Herman Hesse's Demian, for derailing my view of religion at an impressionable age? But now that more time has passed since I first read those books, the order has settled and one heavyweight champ has emerged victorious:

Christian "Mouse" El-Aref, from Lyda Morehouse's AngeLINK series.

Mouse is a literary triple threat: an engaging character with a great plotline who represents something bigger than himself. Also, I totally want to hang out with him.

This will give you a good picture of who Mouse is: he's introduced in the fourth book as the scrappy guy standing on a cafeteria table waving a bowl maniacally and challenging an archangel (who is also on the table, in kung fu pose) to a fight over a difference in opinion on tapioca pudding. "Say it," he's demanding. "Say it's crap!" And he wins.

By this point in the series Mouse is the well-known creator of a freeware version of the LINK, a very nearly successful world domination candidate, and a hacker criminal mastermind on the lam. But if the angel had talked up tapioca in front of him in book one I suspect his reaction would have been about the same. That is just who Mouse is - he sticks to his guns regardless of what kind of trouble doing that will land him in. And partly because of that, he's one of few characters who I pull for no matter what.

His story, like the rest of the stories in the AngeLINK universe, varies from everyday conflicts to epic End Times struggles for the fate of the world. His plots include a world domination scheme, jailtime, tussles with archangels over more than tapioca, a crush on the detective who's been hunting him, disputes with his goody-two-shoes AI, and of course that whole end of the world thing.

He's also, like the rest of the cast in these books, really well-written. There's a writing lesson in here. Lyda's characters work so well because of a combination of a few factors: strong-willed characters, significant descriptions, and varied dialogue. These characters banter, chat, have conversations ranging from insignificant to plot-vital, and they're all good reading because the characters' personalities and interpersonal conflict show through so strongly in dialogue.

The descriptions are inspiring to me because instead of saying, for example, that Mouse's hair is messy, you get a line about how his hair is trying to escape from his head at impossible angles. But the description isn't just there to give you a mental image - it also illustrates something important about the character. In the case of Mouse's crazy hair, it's the fact that he spent the night sleeping in a bathtub rather than sharing a bed with the woman he's in love with right down the hall - further evidence that this character has a habit of losing in matters he cares about, regardless of his intelligence or stubbornness.

And on top of all of this, Mouse can also be read as a symbol of something more. In a series that centers around a Western theocracy wherein only the vetted religious folks get hooked into the global network, he's a Muslim, a survivor of an era of electric blackout in Egypt, and an underdog who's single-handedly brought a free version of the global network to the downcast and the nonreligious. You could write a lot of essays about the thematic meanings behind Mouse (and lord help me, if I ever get an assignment where I can, I will).

Anyway, what I'm trying to say here, beneath the writer-fangirling, is that somewhere in Mouse lies a formula for a character that readers will love and remember. Mouse is multi-faceted. He's got significance in the story, masterful crafting, and entertainment value.

And he's right. Tapioca pudding is crap.

A prequel centered around Mouse and the Blackout years in Egypt is currently in the works, and every time I think about it I get this big dumb grin. If the characters I write can inspire half this level of excitement in readers someday, I will be thrilled.

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