I can’t get the girl out of my mind. I worry about her. I want to know what happened to her after the book ended.
Throughout most of Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, I found the 13-year-old character Maggie Spence exasperating in the way a lot of teens are. Lying to her mother, sneaking out to rendezvous with a boy she was forbidden to see, engaging in sex long before she was capable of dealing with it emotionally. I wanted to shake some sense into her.
As the story threads came together, though, and I saw the full horror of this girl’s situation, I began to fear for her. How on earth could she emerge whole and healthy from the tangle of deceit created by the adults in her life? She couldn’t. My last glimpse of her in the book was one of the most heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever read. George made the girl so real, her predicament so disastrous and her emotional response so raw that I will never forget her.
I want Elizabeth George to bring her back in another book and tell me what has happened to her. I suspect the news wouldn’t be good, but I still want to know. This character will haunt me until I learn her ultimate fate.
It may be a form of torture, but I have to applaud writers who can make me care so much about their fictional characters that I worry about them after the books end or mourn the loss when they’re killed off. I can’t help contrasting my feelings for the girl with my reaction when Helen, wife of George’s detective Tommy Lynley, was shot and killed. For some reason, Helen never seemed quite real to me, and I never liked her. I was, frankly, glad to see her go. Helen’s ghost, in designer shoes, does not haunt me.
Another character who won’t let go of my imagination is also a teenager, but several years older than the girl in Missing Joseph. Her name is Reggie, she’s an orphan who pretends her mother is still alive so she can maintain her freedom and self-reliance, and she is the emotional center of Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? Reggie’s stoic perseverance in the face of catastrophe, and her determination to find out what has become of the woman doctor she’s been working for as a child-minder, drive the story, and Reggie all by herself kept me turning the pages. At the end, her fate is uncertain. I know what I want to see in her future, but even if I’m guessing wrong I hope Atkinson will bring Reggie back and let readers share her life.
I’ve wondered many times what became of Boo Radley after he broke out of his sad, self-imposed isolation to save Scout’s life in To Kill a Mockingbird, but I have no hope at all that Harper Lee will write another book.
I’ve created one character of my own who haunts me: Rachel’s mother, Judith Goddard, in The Heat of the Moon. I gave her a terrible background and more pain than anyone should have to bear. A lot of readers have told me they hated her, and my impulse every time has been to defend her. I’m grateful when someone says they felt sympathy for her and understood why she clung so fiercely to Rachel and her sister and tried so hard to remain in control. Her awful childhood, and the heartbreak she endured as an adult, are very real to me and so is her emotional distress. Although I wouldn’t have had a story without all those events, I find myself wishing I could have made life a little easier for her.
The legacy of a haunting character is something I take away from very few novels, but every book offers the possibility of encountering memorable characters. That’s the reason I read fiction. The characters, not the plot details and certainly not the blood and gore of murder, make a book memorable.
What characters have continued to haunt you long after you finished reading the books? Do you want the authors to produce sequels that will show you what has become of those characters -- even if the news is bad -- or would you rather go on wondering?