Characters drive stories. They stimulate us, uncover our humanity and reveal to us complex motivations. They have to be believable with all their human charms and blemishes. Without the believability factor, no other element will matter and the story will fall flat. The characters in Sherman Alexia's “Flight Pattern” and Eudora Welty's “Why I Will Live at the P.O.” have their similarities and their differences; however, they both will show 'why' good character development gives the feeling of substance and realism into a good story.
In order to compare and contrast the characters in these two stories, it is important to establish essential elements that make up a good character in a particular story. The introduction of a character, especially a central character, is like meeting a person for the first time, a 'getting acquainted' period that captures personal information. A good character must grow, learn, and develop over time while presenting a familiar flare about himself or herself, such as an acquaintance, or a friend or a dislikable person. Realism is what brings that character to life. Finally, each character should have their own unique personality, with a hint of imperfection. People have a hard time relating to perfection, in some situations being perfect becomes irritating. As with most people with imperfections, characters need to be complete, rounded, complex and believable to spark the interest of the reader.(Introduction to Norton Literature, 6-7,17-20,119-123, 2006)
Character development takes on a domino effect in these two short stories. The main character's flaw or inner conflict drives the story forward.(A2) The emotion created by the conflict establishes the theme that correlates to the character who drives the story.(A9) The central character or the protagonist defines the other characters as the story progresses. (A6) These other characters are minor and only exist to benefit the protagonist.(A5) Finally, stories need an antagonist, a negative force or character that has conflict with the protagonist.(A1) (Introduction to Norton Literature, A1, A2, A5, A6, A9, 2006)
In “Flight Patterns”, the protagonist named William, is an Native American Indian who is physically fit, has a fetishist on how he dresses, enjoys music from the Patsy Cline era, can “quote from memory the entire Declaration of Independence” (37), and is a think-tank who sells ideas to businesses. “William [is] an obsessive-compulsive workaholic who [is] afraid of pills. So he suffer[s] sleepless nights and constant daytime fatigue” (38). (Norton, pp 37-50, 2006)
At the beginning of "Flight Patterns", two Native American Indian characters Maria, wife of William and Grace, William's daughter, both minor characters, provide the motive for one of William's conflicts, which is Maria and Grace both love and need him as much as William loves and needs them. This love and need for his family produces another one of his inner conflicts which evolves around flying . He does not sleep well the night before his flight and fears flying not only from the “September 11” incident (40), but also due to the inability to protect his family while he is away. Terrorism became a new realization in every American household, making some people at airports more prone to profile. Profiling is one of William's pet peeves. People often “sniff” (40) around him at the airport because he is a “little brown guy” (40); however, William subconsciously does the same, when he scans “the airports and airplanes for little brown guys who reek of fundamentalism” (40). (Norton, pp 37-50, 2006)
Another inner conflict is “No matter where he live[s], William always feel[s] uncomfortable, so he enjoy[s] other people's discomfort”(43). One example of this is at the airport, William finds it amusing watching “the white people enduring random security checks” (43). William feels proud in being an Native America Indian although he does not display it in a worldly fashion. He just wants to blend with the rest of society while still maintaining his cultural integrity. He does not intentionally “insult” (42) people; all he wants from society is “the world to be a fair and decent place” (42). On the other hand, people are sometimes insulted by William because he is stubbornly independent, doing things his own way, like keeping or handling his luggage when it is the other person's job to do it. (Norton, pp 37-50, 2006)
Fekadu, a minor character, is the taxi cab driver who takes William to the airport. Their initial contact with each other can only be described as awkward. Fekadu's first impression of William is a “Strange American” (42). During the drive to the airport, it is Fekadu who breaks the silence by directing questions to William about his family and if he misses them while he is away. William shares his thoughts with the taxi driver. “I miss them so much I go crazy, I start thinking I'm going to disappear. . . if I'm not home. Sometimes I worry their love is the only thing that makes me human, you know? I think if they stopped loving me, I might burn up, spontaneously combust, and turn into little pieces of oxygen and hydrogen and carbon” (44). He surprises himself by answering so "honestly" and "poetically" (44). While William is explaining how he misses his family, William notices Fekadu has a scar on the right side of his face and neck. This observation arouses William's suspicion. He begins to profile Fekadu as a “black man with a violent history” (Norton, pp 37-50, 2006)
The question and answer session between the two men eventually turns into an intriguing exchange where they find common ground, laugh together, and understand each other. Fekadu learns that William is not “Jewish”(44), but a “Spokane Indian”(45) who has a beautiful wife and daughter whom he loves very much, and misses them terribly when he has to leave them behind. William learns that Fekadu “studied physics at Oxford”(47), was a Selassie fighter pilot who “dropped bombs on his own people”(48), and because of so much guilt, Fekadu defected from Ethiopia leaving behind his beloved family who he has not seen in 30 years. Only at the end does William find out the irony of the scar on Fekadu's face and neck, a taxi-car accident. (Norton, pp 37-50, 2006)
For William, his view of people, at least for the cab driver, have somewhat changed. The interaction between William and Fekadu can be indirectly viewed as a William's confession to the cab driver, the cleansing of a the soul. He enjoyed the company of the cab driver and realized his first impression was justifiably wrong. The obvious antagonist in this story is the disturbing presence of profiling and stereotyping done by our society. (Norton, pp 37-50, 2006)
In “Why I Live at the P.O.”, the reader savors a different flavored short story. The reader immediately detects characters with a dialect that is southern and rural and humorous. One such character is Sister, the narrator, the protagonist, and China Grove's postmistress. Sister seems perfectly content living with her “Mama, Papa-Daddy, and Uncle Rondo” (123), who are all minor characters in the story. That is until her year younger sister Stella-Rondo, the antagonist, came home to live after a recent separation from Mr. Whitaker. The irony of the of Stella-Rondo arrival is the day she arrived, Fourth of July. The emotional fire-works or chain-of- events begin as soon as Stella-Rondo enters the homestead. Sister is revved up with jealousy and rivalry, while using humor as a coping mechanism. Her sentiment about Stella-Rondo starts with Mr. Whitaker. “Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when he first appeared in China Grove, taking “pose Yourself” photos and Stella-Rondo broke us up. Told him I was one-sided. Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood: I am the same” (123). Stella-Rondo's 'lie' initiates Sister's slow activated fuse. (Norton, pp 123-132 2006)
Stella- Rhonda is no angel herself. She has a temper, dramatic and manipulative. She has a lot to hide. Stella-Rondo brings home a two year old girl Shirley-T and according to Sister, Shirley-T is a “spit-image of Papa-Daddy if he'd cut off his beard” (124). Stella-Rondo maintains that Shirley-T is adopted and she eventually schemes support from her family to her claim. (Norton, pp 123-132 2006)
Mama's character is a “two hundred [pound]” woman “with tiny feet” (127) who rules the family and refuses to see reality of the situation; in other words, Stella-Rondo marries, leaves town and returns home with a two year old child that Stella-Rondo claims is adopted. Mama makes some effort see Sister's point of view, which is Stella Rondo is the birth-mother of the little girl; however, Stella-Rondo is Mama's favorite, and if what Stella-Rondo says is true, then from Mama's point-of-view it is true. Mama denies this favoritism with her favorite reply “I prefer to take my children's word for anything when it is humanly possible” (127); what she does not say is except for Sister's word. (Norton, pp 123-132 2006)
Uncle Rondo is Mama's brother and a World War 1 veteran. The war had made its mark on him, both mentally and emotionally. He is very temperamental and easy to anger. The Fourth of July is a special time for him. Sister enlightens the reader about him, “. . . he 'd drunk another bottle of that prescription. He does it every Fourth of July as sure as shooting, and it's horribly expensive” (125). On this Fourth of July, he parades around wearing Stella-Rondo's flesh- colored kimonos. (Norton, pp 123-132 2006)
Papa-Daddy is Sister's grandfather, who is grouchy and has a sharp wit. He is a great admirer of his own long shaggy beard and does not want to ever cut it since, “[t]his is the beard [he] started growing on the Coast when [he] was fifteen years old” (125). During an argument, he likes to remind Sister that it was he who had “influence from the government” (124) in getting her the job as the postmistress. (Norton, pp 123-132 2006)
Shirley-T, the supposedly adopted daughter of Stella-Rondo, does not have a great part in the story. She remains mute though out the story except for one time after Sister ask her Mama if the child had some kind of disability. Mama then asked Stella-Rondo; shortly afterwards the child blurts out in her “Yankee” voice, “OE'm, Pop-OE the Sailor-r-r-r Ma-a-an” and starts to dance(128). (Norton, pp 123-132 2006)
Mr. Whitaker is never actually present. He is only mentioned in conversations as Stella-Rondo's estranged husband and was Sister's first romantic acquaintance. (Norton, pp 123-132, 2006)
Stella-Rondo eventually wins the whole family against Sister. Sister feeling frustrated and angry and hurt, moves out taking her possessions and moves into the P.O. for some peace and quiet. “But here I am and here I'll stay. I want the world to know I'm happy” (132). She expects no one to visit, because most of the population in China Grove, Mississippi is her family; however, “if Stella-Rondo should come to me this minute on bended knees and attempt to explain the incidents of her life with Mr. Whitaker, I'll simply put my fingers in both my ears and refuse to listen” (132) . (Norton, pp 123-132, 2006)
In both stories the central characters are developed with depth and richness in personality. In “Flight Patterns”, William's persona is filled with self-strength, sarcasm, intelligence, compassion and doubt in how he sees himself in the world around him. As the story advances, the reader obtains clues in the subtle change that overtakes William in how he views people around him. (Norton, pp 37-50, 119-123, 2006)
The Sister character in “Why I live at P.O.” is complex and self-deluded. Her family is unwilling to believe a word she says. Instead, they believe the lies from the family's favorite, Stella-Rondo. Sister regresses in the story; not only due of the family's refusal to see her point-of-view, but it is her jealousy of her younger sister and the sister's lies that takes its toll on her. This brings out the oddness in her personality to the reader. (Norton, pp 119-132, 2006)
There are a number of examples where humor is present in both stories. Humor summons the character's and reader's emotions. It reduces the intensity and discomfort of the situation. In “Flight Patterns”, William is sensitive to who he is, a Spokane Native American and how people are seen in terms of race. He infers this many times in the story. William once fantasizes what it might be like if he married a white woman and fathered their children: “Oh, the only box they have for me is Other! I'm not going to check any box! I am not the Other! I am Tiger Woods” (41)! At the airport William endures many random checks by security, because he is the “little brown guy” (40), so he chuckles when he sees white people being checked. “He [knows] those white folks wanted to scream and rage: 'Do I look like a terrorist'” (43)? Another example is when William notices the scar on the side of Fekadu's face and “reprimand[s] himself for racially profil[ing] the driver: 'Excuse me, sir, but I pulled you over, because your scar doesn't belong in his neighborhood'” (44). A final example, is when Fekadu is talking about his children and how much older they are since he last seen them. William validates what Fekadu says; however, he follows his response with a thought: “the official handbook of the frightened American male: 'When confronted with the mysterious, you can defend yourself by speaking in the obvious generalities'” (44). (Norton, pp 37-50, 119-123, 2006)
In the short story “Why I live at the P.O.” humor is rampant throughout the story not only in the conflicting situation, but also through dialect between sister and her family. The following are examples of this: It is the Fourth of July and Stella Rondo decides to leave her husband and arrive home to her family with a two year old child. This sparks the chain of events. Sister describes Stella's presumed adopted child, as a “Spit image of Pappa-Daddy if he'd cut off his beard” (124). Further in the story, Uncle Rondo decides to dressed up in Stella-Rondo's flesh-colored kimonos after he drinks a bottle of “prescription medicine” (125) and passes Sister in the hallway. Sister replies to him “Uncle Rondo! I didn't know who that was! Where are you going” (125)? Uncle Rondo replies “Sister, get out of my way, I'm poisoned” (125). Again, Stella stirs up trouble for Sister by telling Uncle Rondo that “Sister says, 'Uncle Rondo certainly does look like a fool in the pink Kimono”' (129)! The following morning at “6:30 AM” (129), Uncle Rondo with his most “terrible temper” (129) throws “whole five-cent package” (129) of lit fireworks in Sister's bedroom. This shocks Sister out of bed and she comments how “terribly susceptible” (129) she is two loud noises; whereby, she becomes “simply prostrated” (129). The noise that the fireworks made was heard by her Aunt Jep Patterson, who lives by the cemetery. She thought it was “Judgment Day” (129). Finally, at the time that Sister leaves the household, she packs up her things, “without saying 'Kiss my foot', or anything and never [does] tell Stella-Rondo good-bye" (132). She then meets a little girl with a wagon who takes “nine trips”(132) in order to haul Sister's things to the P.O. (132) Afterwards, “Uncle Rondo [comes] out on the porch and [throws] her (the little girl) a nickel.” (132) (Norton, pp. 119-132, 2006)
The most contrasting elements in both stories are the difference in the portrayal of the character's persona and their dialect. In “Flight Patterns”, William's persona can be described as a Native American Indian who is physically fit, intelligent, sarcastic, humorous, uncomfortable with strangers, compassionate, and bias toward other people. The dialogue in the story is traditional and straight-forward. (Norton, pp 20, 37-50, 2006)
On the other hand, the persona of Sister and whole family takes on the atmosphere of lying and misrepresentation; whereas, truth and openness is non-existent. Their conversation takes on the aura of an everyday occurrence. The reader can surmise that the characters of the whole family are mostly dysfunctional and at the same time views the overall family's endorsement of suspicion, accusations and negativity that feeds off of each character. The dialect represents a Southern, limited, rural accent that is dressed with humor. (Norton: 19)(olemissing.edu) This unique speech diction humanizes the characters and places them into their local environment. Two examples of this speech pattern are the following: Sister informs her family that she is leaving, where her Papa-Daddy replies “You'll never catch me setting foot in that post office, even if I take a notion into my head to write a letter some place. I won't have you reaching' out of that little old window with a pair of shears and cuttin' off any beard of mine. I'm too smart for you” (131)! The second example is Shirley-T when she blurts out, “OE'm Pop-OE the Sailor-r-r-r Ma-a-an”(128)! (olemiss.edu, 2010) (Norton, pp 19, 119-132, 2006)
Regardless of a story's similarities or differences, the two short stories “Flight Pattern” and “Why I Live at the P.O.” have developed strong, complex characters that grab the reader. Their central characters embrace traits of hope, fear, weakness, and conviction. Emotion derived from conflict, takes center stage in character development as it does for William in "Flight Pattern", as well as for Sister in “Why I Will Live at the P.O.” It is their emotion that creates the theme, that correlates to the characters, who drive the story, with their believable charms and blemishes. Aristotle indicates this best: “Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses or avoids”. (Norton, pg 121, 2006)
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Retrieved June 12, 2010, from olemiss.edu website