Book Talk, Tips and Tricks, Writers' Resource

Filling Your World with Characters: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

I didn’t start reading John Irving until I was assigned the book by one of my mentors through the Rainier Writing Workshop. So, this author, as well as his style, was new to me. It took me a while to put my finger on what exactly drew me in and kept me reading.

Irving’s writing style leaves a lot of room for subtly, in my opinion. Even the dialogue represents the character Owen Meany as someone almost larger than life; his dialogue is written in all caps and reads not as him constantly yelling but as placing importance on his every word. But the titular character of A Prayer for Owen Meany isn’t the only character who stands out. Neither is the main character, for that matter.

As it turns out, every other character is vivid as well. And I’ll explain what I mean.

It’s difficult to create an entire world out of a blank page or blank Word document. John Irving not only creates a vibrant world in the small New Hampshire town of Gravesend, but he also fills it to the brim with colorful characters — and every single one has the feeling of a life outside of the main narrator. Each side character (and background character) feels like a real person, with a life of their own. And in my opinion, no scene illustrates this as strongly as the description just before the Christmas pageant.

The protagonist, John, looks into the audience on the day that his best friend, Owen, is performing in an amateur theater play (“A Christmas Carol”), an occurrence that will later have a great effect on Owen. Irving decides to slow the scene down just before it plays out, and through this slower pacing the description gets a chance to shine. From backstage, John searches for Owen’s parents only to find their absence. (Their absence, while skimmed over quickly, is more telling than any description of their presence.) Instead, he notices,

Mr. Morrison, the cowardly mailman, his eyes darting daggers in all directions, and wringing his hands — as he might around a throat — in his lap. The look of a man who’s come to see What Might Have Been is full of both bloodshed and nostalgia; should Owen succumb to his fever, Mr. Morrison looked ready to play the part.

Irving, 240

Though we’ve gotten plenty of description for Mr. Morrison already, this instance is especially foreboding. The image of the mailman wringing his hands in his lap “as he might around a throat” places a sense of unease in the reader, as it does in the protagonist John. His eagerness to play a bigger part in the play, as well as the quick imagined future in which Owen succumbs to a fever, makes Mr. Morrison feel like a flawed human being.

The next person John notes is Reverend Lewis Merrill, who attends the play for the third time. John speculates as to why this is, coming to the conclusion that he likes the fact that the play is extremely clear “example of man’s humbleness before the spiritual world” (Irving, 240). As if he lend evidence to this deduction, John later notes that the reverend mouths the actors’ lines as the play begins (Irving, 241). Lewis Merrill gives a different reason, however; when asked by Dan, John’s stepdad, he says that he “enjoyed watching the actors ‘settle into’ their parts” (Irving, 240). These two reasonings, while not necessarily at odds with each other, shed light onto motivations given by the character in question (Lewis Merrill) and those given by the people around him (John / the reader). While this is a small bit of detail in the description, it does wonders to add an extra layer onto a character only described here in passing.

Lewis Merrill’s kids also behave much like children do when they’re being forced to do something they would rather not, like attend an amateur stage production.

The tallish boy, the notorious cemetery vandal, sprawled his legs into the center aisle, indifferently creating a hazard for the elderly, the infirm, and the unwary. The middle child, a girl — her hair so brutally short, in keeping with her square, shapeless body, that she might have been a boy — brooded loudly over her bubble gum. She had sunk herself so low in her seat that her knees caused considerable discomfort to the back of the neck of the unfortunate citizen who sat in front of her. He was a plump, mild, middle-aged man who taught something in the sciences at Gravesend Academy; and when he turned round in his seat to reprove the girl with a scientific glare, she popped a bubble at him with her gum.

Irving, 240-41

Two of Lewis Merrill’s kids, though nameless in this scene, ooze personality. The careless nature of their behavior hints at a potentially purposeful disregard for anyone else’s comfort, seeing as how their own had been disrespected by their father. The childish nature of their payback is on full display, as the son “indifferently create[s] a hazard” for three types of people who it would be enormously rude to take advantage of: “the elderly, the infirm, and the unwary.” The daughter expresses her annoyance in a less dangerous but more annoying way, making the person in front of her uncomfortable and rudely snapping her gum at him. While the reader is seeing this scene through the eyes of John, behavior like this is not considered socially polite. However, it is within the realm of something that teenagers would do when in a rebellious mood. And the very fact that they express their discomfort in two different and distinct ways makes them feel like two real people, unique from each other in their moodiness.

The fullness of the theater is clearly felt even by the sheer number of familiar faces that we see here, and the familiar faces that we don’t. As mentioned earlier, Owen’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Meany, do not attend, and their absence is noted. Though the reverend, Lewis Merrill, is enraptured by the play, Rector Wiggins is not present, likely because of Owen’s creepily convincing performance as the ghost of Christmas future. As John recalls seeing more and more faces in the theater, he begins to link them to the one moment at the core of his and Owen’s story — the unfortunate at-bat when Owen hit the baseball so hard that it killed John’s mother.

Why was I so surprised by the applause that greeted old Scrooge in his countinghouse? It was the way the play had opened every night; but it wasn’t until Christmas Eve that it occurred to me how many of these same townspeople must have been present in those bleacher seats that summer day — applauding, or on the verge of applauding, the force with which Owen Meany struck that ball. And yes, there was Mr. Chickering, whose warm-up jacket had kept me from too close a view of the mortal injury; yes, there was Police Chief Pike…his suspicious eyes roaming the audience…as if Chief Pike suspected that the culprit might have brought the stolen baseball to the play!

Irving, 241

As is often the case in a small town, John knows these faces from prior events without at first noticing them. But as he links each one to the moment of his mother’s death, he also describes one action for both Mr. Chickering and Chief Pike that illustrate their character consistencies: Mr. Chickering is kind and sensitive enough to shield John’s view of the death, and Chief Pike is always on the prowl for danger. Even in the theater, what should be a mundane place, Mr. Chickering and Chief Pike are consistent in their character.

In short, Irving uses several literary techniques in only one scene (the initial description of which spans only two pages, a few paragraphs) to bring his story world to life through the characters and to make the setting feel real. Irving uses descriptions that:

  • illustrate a character’s flaws, a trademark of humanity that therefore makes that character feel real,
  • highlight a character’s contradictions in motivation and/or an added layer of reasoning that makes that character feel more complex,
  • depict characters in realistic moods that are outwardly shown through small but noticeable behavioral details, and
  • tie back to the protagonist’s view of the world/setting to create a sense of consistency.

Through the use of these multi-purpose descriptions, Irving creates a world full of rich characters, not just in this scene, but in the rest of the story as well. The Christmas play is just one instance of this amazing character/setting depth; nevertheless, this is the moment that stood out in my mind and urged me to look deeper at what Irving is doing to make it all work. If this small taste of John Irving’s writing style intrigues you, then I encourage you to read the rest of A Prayer for Owen Meany and some of his other works as well!

Photo by Max Letek on Unsplash