How to make the most unbelievable characters come alive

Can you guess the famous fictional character who spoke these words?

“It was morning when I awoke, and my first care was to visit the fire. I uncovered it, and a gentle breeze quickly fanned it into a flame. I observed this also and contrived a fan of branches, which roused the embers when they were nearly extinguished. When night came again I found, with pleasure, that the fire gave light as well as heat and that the discovery of this element was useful to me in my food, for I found some of the offals that the travelers had left had been roasted, and tasted much more savoury than the berries I gather from the trees.”

Any ideas? No? OK, try this, then: Same character, same topic, but this time it’s a famous comedian doing an impression:

“Fire bad!”

Answer: The character is Frankenstein’s (never actually named) monster. The first passage is from the book by Mary Shelley; the second was Phil Hartman’s version of him on Saturday Night Live.

According to Shelley, this creature – who learned all his English just by spying on an oblivious family – has a command of the language as full as Shelley has herself. According to Hartman, the monster hasn’t mastered verbs. So whose version is more believable? The answer reveals a writer’s dilemma.

In the novel, the scientist conceals his secret to bringing the monster to life. But the author’s technique is no secret; she brings him to life through dialogue.

By giving the monster the unlikely gift of eloquence, Shelley allowed him to bring the reader along as he discovered life, beauty, rejection, fury, and ultimately desperation. She made the reader care because she made the monster authentic and sympathetic, able to express the same feelings a human being can. This could not have happened if she had limited his lexicon to what you would expect an uneducated, abandoned being to have (especially since a good portion of the novel is the monster telling his own story).

By taking his eloquence away, Hartman created an entertaining caricature. Hartman made him more realistic to make him funny.

But Shelley had the harder job; she had to make him less realistic in order to make him more real.

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