J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy explores the gaping hole left by Barry Fairbrother’s absence when he unexpectedly dies. It is a darkly comical novel set in the little town of Pagford, England. J. K. Rowling is a master storyteller who creates a propelling plot inhabiting a richly peopled world. There is a sense of authenticity because of the way she tells the story, so much so, the narrator has a British accent. So how does a writer create characters that readers want to know like best friends? Only Rowling can teach them.
First, Rowling introduces characters with real issues. At the beginning of the novel, Barry Fairbrother has “a thumping headache” and must take his wife out for their anniversary (3). Rowling hints at the turbulence in their relationship by writing: “He tried to give his wife pleasure in little ways, because he had come to realize, after nearly two decades together, how often he disappointed her in the big things” (3). She echoes the duality of male/female relationships with many of the characters in the novel. It is this back-and-forth that gives the writing a dimensional aspect. She also addresses the deep history of the family, saying their “four children were past the age of needing a babysitter” (3). This orients the novel in the timeline of the characters. But Rowling continues to build the characters, creating sympathy for them.
Then pain such as he had never experienced sliced through is brain like a demolition ball. He barely noticed the smarting of his knees as they smacked onto the cold tarmac; his skull was awash with fire and blood; the agony was excruciating beyond endurance, except that endure it he must, for oblivion was still a minute away. (4)
The entire novel is about the aftermath of Barry’s death. But to set that up, Rowling had to give a description of his life as a father, a husband, and a teacher, and then also show the big event. Rowling could have glossed over the death, but because it was an essential item in the story, she focused on it with intent. It is easier to feel for a character (Mary, the wife) after we know what she and her husband have endured. Rowling writes: “Mary was crouching beside him, the knees of her tights ripped, clutching his hand, sobbing and whispering his name” (5). The emotional impact is greater because of the explanation of the relationship and the understanding of what came before.
The back-and-forth continues with another relationship, Samantha and Miles. Rowling set it up so the couple would have competing goals, thereby increasing the tension in the relationship. Miles wants Barry’s vacant seat on the council and Samantha wants out (194). Samantha says: “’We said…that once the girls were out of school, we’d go traveling’” (194). Barry “seemed completely bewildered” and asks, “’What are you talking about’” (194). Their argument escalates between shouting Samantha and cool Miles. He asks if she wants a holiday, and she say, “No, Miles, I don’t want a bloody holiday” (195). Then Rowling cranks the temperature up a notch again: “The problem…is that this is about our future, Miles. Our future. And I don’t want to bloody talk about it in for years’ time, I want to talk about it now” (195). Then Miles, making an assumption that because she was drinking was drunk, tries to cut her off. He leaves after stating “if you’re going to be abusive…” (195). Rowling then sums up Miles’ commitment: “He was committing himself anew to Pagford, retaking his vows to the town of his birth, to a future quite different from the one he had promised his distraught new fiancée as she sat sobbing on his bed” (195). Now, this summary of the scene is necessary because it illustrates how Rowling uses back-and-forth dialogue to show the different wants and needs of the couple. It would have been a boring book if she had simply had them agree with everything.
Writers can learn one of the tools of the trade through Rowling’s work including the notion that witty dialogue and individual wants and needs must be addressed in order to further the story and make the characters realistic. Rowling created an entirely new world with characters who have their own hopes and dreams. By exploring those things within the contents of the story, she shows writers how to develop characters. J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy is a bestseller, however not as popular as her Harry Potter series.
This is a four star book. I loved it and will read it again.
Rowling, J. K. The Casual Vacancy. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2012. Print.