Characters Of Fiction and Real-Life

“Never judge someone by the way he looks or a book by the way it’s covered; for inside those tattered pages, there’s a lot to be discovered.”

― Stephen Cosgrove

“The only characters I ever don’t like are ones that leave no impression on me. And I don’t write characters that leave no impression on me.

― Lauren DeStefano

During our most recent drop-in comic and storytelling session at JHS, an outreach worker took his client Paul to the workshop during a quieter hour. It was noon, and most participants had gone across the street for a quick diner sandwich.

“He prefers it when it’s really quiet,” the outreach worker explained. “He gets really self-conscious when he’s around others.”

Paul had a speech impediment which prevented him being able to form words, and he was afraid of being laughed at. At the gentle urging of his outreach worker, he sat down and began to colour a picture of a wild rose. Paul told me about wanting to buy hiking boots at Army & Navy in New Westminster and needing to visit his mother.

In fiction, as in real life, we all want to be accepted for who we are, and we all want acknowledgement as human beings.

When workshop participants meet me at JHS for the first time, they tend to appear anxious and shy. They hesitate and stare at their hands. They fidget. Workshop participants, without any prompting, also tend to give me a personal history or an explanation of their psychological or physical difficulties.

Their introductions usually begin like this:

“My name is Marcus. When I was younger, I was dropped on the head so I have trouble remembering and talking…”

“My name is Sharon. My teacher used to hit me because I had trouble reading so I don’t want to go back to school.”

“I’m Christopher. I don’t want to colour because it hurts my head and my hands.”

Their introductions are confessions that are heartbreakingly intimate. Their introductions also speak to the immense stresses in their lives that have made them feel unwanted and Other. It’s almost as if participants feel that they won’t be welcomed in our weekly workshop gatherings, especially if they don’t ask me for permission to be themselves.

This is why I always emphasize that participants can participate in none, one, or all of the activities offered, and most importantly, they can leave the workshop at any time.

“This is supposed to be a fun class,” I say, and gesture at a table laden with muffins, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and palm-sized oranges. We eat snacks while we work on our collaborative comics and storytelling projects. We talk about our fondness for food, our love of tattoos, and our sometimes not-so-loving families. We laugh.

Fiction and storytelling are about the prevailing study of human nature. In literature, we see our own flaws and universal foibles through joy, sorrow, romance, and tragedy. We see ourselves as grand heroes and scheming villains. Fiction allows us to experience what drives a character forward and how their beliefs are shaped and challenged and sometimes dismissed.

Most importantly, fiction lets us analyze characters and overcome our own biases and prejudices about others, finally teaching us how to relate to those who are different.

This is because novels show us that there is more to someone than what is on the exterior; we witness the intricacies of a person. Each character is composed of a mosaic of distinct personality traits and life-altering experiences, but what each character desires is to feel human.

Each character wants to be accepted.

Sometimes, in a rare moment, a participant in my workshop will forget their all-encompassing shyness and begin to giggle at their own drawing, encouraging others in the class to join in. This is a rare moment for them to not feel self-conscious about their artwork. When someone laughs loudly and relaxes, it allows the class to realize that storytelling is fulfilling and fun.

The workshop participants are people who have been taught by society to define themselves by their limitations and personal traumas, and not by their accomplishments, hopes and dreams; they don’t believe that they are worthy enough to simply introduce themselves by name alone. To me, workshop participants are real-life characters whose hurts are fresh and unyielding, painful, raw, and ongoing. Their obstacles make them extraordinary, but they have been taught to always justify and explain their emotional and developmental barriers.

All this, I find, harbors a great fear that they won’t be liked or be able to participate in a creative group activity.

So how do we, as teachers, art facilitators, and human beings in general, begin to erase these boundaries and redefine the ways used to speak about ourselves? How do we begin to re-imagine systematic, societal, racial and personal biases?  How do we make marginalized people, who are frequently deemed less human than others, i.e. those who are stigmatized by society, feel valued?

How do we let them know that they will not be bullied or judged?

How do we let them know that their art and stories matter?

How do we make them feel part of a greater community?

Teaching workshops at JHS and getting to personally know the participants has taught me that we have to uncover new ways to think about ourselves. There is momentous power in our own portrayal, and if we can find aspects within ourselves that we are proud of, we can then move forward from defining ourselves by our previous hurts.

Like characters in fiction, we need to try to to overcome our personal barriers and sadnesses; we have to try to grow and move forward. Only then can we analyze ourselves and look beyond the obvious.

I really want to encourage members of the public and residents of the Mount Pleasant/Kensington-Cedar neighbourhood to engage with the wonderful community at JHS. Only together can we work to slowly overcome barriers and larger systematic prejudices–only can we then help our most vulnerable members of society learn that they matter as human beings.

“My coloring is very bad,” Paul repeated to me earnestly throughout the session. “It’s very bad. It’s very bad because of problems in my head.”

“No,” I said. “You did an amazing job.”

At the end of the workshop, I taped his picture in the center of a display board so everyone at the JHS office could admire his artwork.

Important dates: During the month of July, drop-in sessions will be held on Wednesday July 4 and Wednesday July 18 from 10 AM-3 PM at the John Howard Society at 3360 Fraser Street, Vancouver, B.C.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the participants.

RECOMMENDED READING (Books With Misunderstood/Marginalized Characters)


The Catcher In The Rye by J.D Salinger

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Carrie by Stephen King

The Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Nighttime by Mark Haddon

Wicked: The Life and Times Of The Wicked Witch Of The West by Gregory Maguire

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Perks Of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Julius Winsome by Gerard Donovan

Notes On A Scandal by Zoë Heller

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr Seuss

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie