The Character Conundrum: Chasing Butterflies

“The secret is not to run after the butterflies … it is to take care of your garden so that they come to you.” – Mario Quintana (translated by google translate)

When I was young I had a hard time falling asleep. I had a lovely room with hand-painted wall stencils and a massive window that faced the street outside. At the time, every house on our street had a street lamp in their yard, so the light coming in my window was enough to illuminate the size and shape of it – ideal for my youthful imagination.

Every night, I waited for Peter Pan to take me to Neverland. That’s not a joke. All you preteens waiting for your Hogwarts letter had no idea how bad it could really be. I wasn’t old enough to even consider that Peter Pan might be fictional. I really waited. And waited.

One day my father was tucking me in, and I complained about not being able to sleep. And my poor father said “Just put your head down and wait for Peter Pan to take you away to Neverland.”

And four year old me screwed up my face and went, “But Daddy I wait for him every night and he NEVER COMES!”

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Peter Pan by Gwynedd Hudson

All characters are good characters, in a way. If they’ve made it down on paper, or your screen, or any other way you can absorb them, then congratulations. That’s an achievement to be celebrated.

But I should specify: what makes a character memorable? What makes them the character that you’d go have coffee with, hoping for the chance to peel back those layers a little bit, or alternatively shore up some of those walls.

What makes them your favourite? Favourite doesn’t necessarily mean best, or well-written, or believable. Your personal favourite. A character that speaks to you specifically. A character that says, “don’t worry love, if I can do it, you can.”

I don’t know the answer. Were you expecting me to? I think it’s too personal for that, and sadly it might be so personal that there will never be a quantifiable answer.

I have a few of my own though, and I’m going to share them with you in an effort to shed some more light on the idea.

Captain Jas. Hook: Weird first choice, huh? You thought it would be Peter? Yeah, I love Peter. I dressed up as him for years. I still quote him all the time. I didn’t just want him to take me away, I wanted to be him. Turns out though, Hook is still more interesting.

Now, I should preface this by saying that J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is super racist (the sexism is less obvious, but it’s there). Even as a child I knew something was off (and the movie is … so much worse). I’m not going to get into it too much, because you could write an entire book on just that subject, and that’s not the point of this post, nor am I the best person to do it. It’s still important to flag it, though, especially in a story aimed at children – the affect that it had on me is a good case in point.

The problem with Peter is that he’s only one thing, and everything. He’s Peter Pan! He goes on adventures. He’s forgetful. He’s violent, aggressive, and sometimes kind and sweet. He finds pain funny. He’s vain. He’s silly. On the character alignment chart, he is all of them (admittedly his baseline is probably chaotic neutral).

And yes, that’s interesting. We can argue about Peter all day. But now, let’s talk about Hook.

Captain Hook is vicious. He’s deadly. He’s vain. He keeps a poison of his own design on him in case of emergencies. The first thing he does in the story is kill one of his own men – the narrator makes him do it just for the sake of showing us his style.

In person he was cadaverous and blackavized, and his hair was dressed in long curls, which at a little distance looked like black candles, and gave a singularly threatening expression to his handsome countenance. His eyes were of the blue of the forget-me-not, and of a profound melancholy, save when he was plunging his hook into you, at which time two red spots appeared in them and lit them up horribly … A man of indomitable courage, it was said of him that the only thing he shied at was the sight of his own blood, which was thick and of an unusual colour. In dress he somewhat aped the attire associated with the name of Charles II., …  and in his mouth he had a holder of his own contrivance which enabled him to smoke two cigars at once. But undoubtably the grimmest part of him was his claw.

Blackavized: It’s a mix of English and French that would literally translate to “blackface” which today in America would mean a white person painting their face to parody a black person, in accordance with a long history of white people doing disgustingly racist things. In this case it means he has a dark complexion. He’s swarthy. I don’t know enough about the word to say if it’s racist in and of itself (probably) but obviously the symbolism of making the villain of your story dark-skinned and continually referring to it in a way that equates his colouring to the terrible things that he does is racist. The fact that he has blue eyes, the (unquoted) description of his elegant demeanour, and the effeminacy of his attire don’t excuse it – and in fact raise other related problems, like classism, sexism, homophobia, and the particular kind of racism that targets people whose race isn’t definable, but are still othered.

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Jas. Hook by Gwynedd Hudson

What I find most interesting about Hook as a character isn’t the way he is lovingly described as the worst creature in the world. It’s his obsession with good form. Chapter fourteen begins with Hook, having poisoned Peter and captured Wendy and the boys, having won, pacing his deck “profoundly dejected”. He then spends several pages in an internal debate about whether he is possessing of good form. It’s a thing never defined, and it’s not meant to be. Hook values good form over everything else, but he doesn’t really know what it is. He says he has fame, but this is not enough. He says he has the fear of men, but men of no consequence.

“Most disquieting reflection of all, was it not bad form to think about good form?”

And then he says, “no little children love me.”  Like this is a problem for him. He considers his bo’sun, Smee, whom the little children do love, despite Smee thinking otherwise. Smee, thinks Hook, is possessing of the best form of good form, because he’s not aware of it. Hook almost kills Smee for it, before he realises that killing someone over their good form would be, you know, bad form.

The plot moves forward, the final battle begins, Hook realises he’s going to lose.

The thing is, at this point, he doesn’t really care. He’d already won, so he thought, and that didn’t make him feel any better. Winning, to Hook, isn’t about decimating his enemies. That’s what I find so interesting about him – that he doesn’t care. Not about killing, or his crew, or even Peter.

Peter is only of interest to Hook because Peter has good form, and Hook doesn’t. Peter’s annoying, but so what? Everyone annoys Hook. This is just a glorified turf war.

So here we are, at the end, the final battle. But before we get to the end of Hook, let me say a little more about Peter: this book doesn’t end happily for Peter. The Lost Boys stay with Wendy and the Darlings, and Peter goes back to Neverland on his own. He comes back a few times for Wendy, but then he forgets, and years pass, and the next time he comes, she’s a grown woman. Peter doesn’t change. He doesn’t grow. He takes Wendy’s daughter away, but one day he’ll forget about her too, and then she’ll be grown. Peter forgets everything, because in the end it all means nothing to him.

So keep that in mind when you read the end of Hook:

He had one last triumph, which I think we need not grudge him. As he stood on the bulwark looking over his shoulder at Peter gliding through the air, he invited him with a gesture to use his foot. It made Peter kick instead of stab.

At last Hook had got the boon for which he craved.

“Bad form,” he cried jeeringly, and went content to the crocodile.

Thus perished James Hook.

Hook wins.

What a wild ride of contradictions Hook is. I think about him more than I should. I can’t say I like him, because I don’t, but I can’t hate him either. I almost feel bad for him. Had he been created by a writer who relied a little less on his prejudices, he might have done a bit better for himself. On the other hand, it’s those prejudices that shape the character he is. Without them, he wouldn’t exist.

Next up in this series: Annabeth Chase (Percy Jackson)

 

 

 

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