Monday, October 1, 2012

Voice, character growth, and Daddy Long Legs

I just finished reading Daddy Long Legs, by Jean Webster, published in 1912, to my girls. The story: Jerusha "Judy" Abbott is an orphan. A trustee of the John Grier Hall finds her snarky high school essay on trustee visiting day at the home amusing, and on a whim, decides to send her to college. He's done it a few times before for boys, but never girls. His conditions: she will write a monthly letter, letting him know how things are going and what she's learning. He will pay for college and send her money, but will never reveal his name or anything about him. She is to call him Mr. Smith. All Judy knows is that he's rich, he apparently dislikes girls, and he is tall (she saw his shadow around the corner as he left that day). So she calls him Daddy Long Legs, and writes funny letters about what she's learning, the extent to which she tries to hide her true origins (because in 1912, the girls who are in college are definitely not people who came out of foundling homes!), and her hopes, dreams, and disappointments. Her attempt to conceal her orphanage past among some rather wealthy friends eventually gets her into trouble, though, as you can imagine.The voice in the story is simply lovely--funny, wise and naive at the same time, and sometimes heartbreaking, too.

There's a recent musical based on the book that uses many lines from the book, but also shows the other side of the stamp, ie what "Mr. Smith" Daddy Long Legs is thinking as he reads these letters, and what happens to him. Umm...if you're planning to read the book first, don't listen to the music until you're done, because there are spoilers. But two things really stuck out to me after listening to the music, things that are just very well done, and useful to study for writing.

Firstly, the voice. There's this great song called "Like Other Girls," where Judy says she just wants to be like other girls (ie without these weird gaps of knowledge and social errors, and without the fears she brought with her from the orphanage). So she sings things like, "I just want to be like other girls--bake lemon pies, cure diseases, win the Nobel Prize--like other girls." Um. Maybe her peers want to bake lemon pies and wear pretty shoes, but I'm pretty sure that not all of them want to win the Nobel Prize. There's just this lovely sense in the whole song that even in all her wanting, she still doesn't really understand what it means to be like other girls. It's this funny mix of her individual perceptions of the world against what the viewer knows is the real reality that gives her such a lovely voice and personality. So think about that with your characters. We all see part of the mysterious elephant, and believe that is the total reality. What part does your character see? How does s/he describe it? That's a part of that character's voice.

Secondly, character development. Early in the show, Daddy Long Legs sings about charity. He's rich through no effort of his own, but since he's come into this amazing wealth, he doesn't think he should keep it. He's very happy to share it with the less fortunate. And there's really nothing wrong with that. He's not "bad." He doesn't love wealth more than anything--he has a basic virtue, and it's charity. But he really only has a theoretical understanding of charity. But the letters--they force him out of being a casual observer. He who doesn't like people is forced to get to know them--and realize that he was lonely before, and now he's starting to get filled. Later in the musical, he realizes that his anonymity has created enormous obstacles to his own happiness, and extricating himself from the situation he's created is going to require other people's forgiveness. And now--he realizes that charity isn't just thoughtless passing around of money, but something you give to someone that they cannot do for themselves. And he realizes that he needs the charity that is forgiveness, too. It's a lovely, lovely example of character growth. You don't have to have your character be horrible at the beginning to grow. You can have them basically good, but untested, naive, with basic but rather shallowly understood good intentions. And then they live it, and understand what they once gave lip service to in a very real way.


Heather Dixon said...

I had no idea there was a musical! I've always enjoyed the book, & the movie (with Fred Astaire)

PS: You are the first person I've met who understands plot chiasmus. Let's be friends!

Rose Green said...

I had no idea there was either movie nor musical until recently. I'll have to check out the movie--and I know I want to see the musical!

As to the plot chiasmus: yes, lets! :)