My dear friend Terry, who lives in the Bay Area, was talking the other day about an assignment in her creative writing class. She was having trouble with the project and thought I might have an idea or two. The assignment was to write about a character in a novel that you wish had been further developed, or were left wanting to know more about. At first thought this seemed an easy task; if nothing else, it certainly makes one review much-loved books, recently read books, books not worth the time, and books you’ll never forget. But then, to think about the characters — the memorable ones and those that you would want to spend more time with — is an interesting proposition.
The classics certainly have a wealth of characters to choose from but after thinking about it I came to realize the authors usually developed each character thoroughly, as was the style in the 18th and 19th centuries. Would one need to know more about Mr. Darcy, Heathcliff, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina or Daisy Miller? I believe these characters and the auxiliary characters in those novels were too well-drawn to leave me feeling that I needed to know more about them. Often I would puzzle over their actions and decisions, but never did I believe that I didn’t really know them as characters.
Moving on to more modern and contemporary writers and their novels, the choices broaden and become more difficult. After much deliberation, however, I finally decided the one I would like to have seen be better developed or to have known more about is Hanna Schmitz, the inscrutable, abrupt lover of the young boy Michael in “The Reader” by Bernard Schlink. What, besides illiteracy, shaped her life, why was she friendless, why was she so driven by the fear of her secret being revealed that she was willing to go to prison? We see her as strong and almost confrontational with Michael, yet she marched in line with all that she was told to do as a prison guard. The grown Michael poses many of these same questions while watching Hanna’s trial but nothing is revealed about her inner life or what motivates her. Hanna Schmitz remains a character who is never fully revealed and we are left to decide for ourselves what we believe about her.
I have often thought it would be interesting if Bernard Schlink would write about the same events but through Hanna’s eyes — her childhood, how she came to be illiterate, and the circumstances that created the shame that drove her life choices, chief among them the choice to be imprisoned.
Thank you Terry, for giving me something to ponder.