I recently read Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. I’m a fan of Steinbeck, but have to admit I struggled with the beginning of this book. It was full of description: describing places, houses, people and even a couple pages on the Model T truck. By page 34, I wasn’t sure what the plot was. Halfway through the novel, I realized how this Nobel Peace Prize Winning Author continues to draw me in—characters.
There are over two handfuls of unique, interesting characters in this book. While writing, I often want to reach for clique or average, especially in secondary characters. I want to challenge myself to dig deeper for those unique personalities that we love to read about.
Here’s an example of a secondary character, Gay, in Cannery Row that only participates for thirty five pages. While I don’t remember the color of his hair or body type, I won’t forget this story anytime soon.
Doc asked, “How are things going up at the Palace?”
Hazel ran his fingers through his dark hair and he peered into the clutter of his mind. “Pretty good,” he said. “That fellow Gay is moving in with us I guess. His wife hits him pretty bad. He don’t mind that when he’s awake but she waits ‘til he gets to sleep and then hits him. He hates that. He has to wake up and beat her up and then when he goes back to sleep she hits him again. He don’t get any rest so he’s moving in with us.”
“That’s a new one,” said Doc. “She used to swear out a warrant and put him in jail.”
“Yeah!” said Hazel. “But that was before they built the new jail in Salinas. Used to be thirty days and Gay was pretty hot to get out, but this new jail—radio in the tank and good bunks and the sheriff’s a nice fellow. Gay gets in there and he don’t want to come out. He likes it so much his wife won’t get him arrested any more. So she figured out this hitting him while he’s asleep. It’s nerve racking, he says. And you know as good as me —Gay never did take any pleasure beating her up. He only done it to keep his self- respect. But he gets tired of it. I guess he’ll be with us now.”
Steinbeck paints gritty characters that stick with us. Two dimensional characters are easy, like neighbors that we wave to while our garage shuts. There is more out there, let’s tip over their trash and see who they really are. Let’s keep digging.