Here’s another piece that teaches you to find value beyond the surface in any book you read.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and Aristotle and Dante Dive Into the Waters of the World made two of four 5-star books I read last month.
The famous YA coming-of-age story by the acclaimed Benjamin Alire Sáenz got a sequel this year and I, like the rest of the world, fell head-over-heels in love with it.
The books go like this: Ari and Dante are two teenage boys of Mexican heritage who meet one day at the swimming pool and ultimately become best friends. The book is set in the 1980s and follows the protagonists’ journey into adulthood, discovering their sexuality, and finding answers to the greatest questions of their lives.
While Dante becomes comfortable with being gay quite early on in the story, Ari takes a long time to process his feelings for his best friend. Their love blooms within the grim context of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and in a world where same-sex relationships are still treated harshly.
TW: There are graphic displays of homophobia in both books, so avoid if you think that might trigger you.
Yet the story is so candid and profound at times that it simply takes your breath away. The characters aren’t just representative of their sexuality, age and ethnicity. They are complex, flawed, sometimes fragile, unreliable, determined, and incredibly, incredibly human.
When a book makes you feel like taking part in the conversations between characters, you might want to pause and pay attention. Because the author has then created people, not typologies, and that is invaluable.
What the Experts Say
Masterclass is an online learning platform where aspiring writers can learn from the crème de la crème of literature, among other fields of work like cooking and acting.
Their experts say that eight boxes need to be ticked in order to create a great fictional character:
- clear motivations and goals: Ari wants to know what happened to his brother who is in prison for murder, and make his dad, a Vietnam veteran, less closed-off; Dante wants to find his calling in life and embrace his identity — all of these are very human, relatable goals.
- identifiable voice: Ari is impulsive, introverted, but charming and popular, he is also very honest; Dante is talkative and a bit quirky, hates shoes (a key trait revealing freedom of spirit and stubbornness to stand against the norm) and is ‘crazy about his parents’ (what teenage boy has ever said that?).
- slow reveal: we only get to see how these boys truly are as the story progresses, the author doesn’t just describe them once they’re introduced to the reader, they grow at a pace. Some of their key traits are revealed at the very end.
- conflict: Ari can’t come to terms with his sexuality, nor with the loss of his brother; this keeps the action going in a precise direction and creates anticipation. Dante can’t stop being in love with Ari, that’s his biggest conflict.
- backstory: very small details throughout the book point to the boys’ circumstances and wider stories. We learn about Ari’s big family, his dad’s war years, his short childhood period alongside his brother. We also learn about Dante’s constant frustration at not being “Mexican enough” and how that reflects on him within his family. Even the stories of how the boys were named play a key role in the story.
- use familiar terms to describe characters: readers want to relate to these fictional people, so they need to be believable. Ari is aggressive in the name of justice, Dante talks too much and saves birds, one likes nature, the other likes art, and so on.
- don’t neglect physical appearance: for a character to come to life, the reader needs to be able to picture them clearly, so physical details are important, but shouldn’t be too precise or too many.
- building good secondary characters: this is Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s best asset in creating stellar characters. The boys’ parents, their friends, Gina, Susie and Cassandra, and even Ari’s dog, Legs, are essential in how the two protagonists develop as the story progresses. The relationships they forge with these secondary characters, the way they talk about them and treat them, the way they interact all help bring the pieces together to create a bigger, more relatable, more complex picture of Ari and Dante.
If you’re a writer creating (or struggling to create) fictional characters, you might find more valuable answers in actual works of fiction, than in books about building characters. It’s show-don’t-tell, and Benjamin Alire Sáenz is one incredible master at it.
Eliza Lita is a freelance writer based in the UK. She covers books and reading, fitness, lifestyle, and personal development. For more of her stories, please consider signing up for a Medium membership through her referral link.