I loved E.B. White’s, “Charlotte’s Web” as a child so I decided recently to rent the movie to share with my four-year-old son. Unlike today’s action-packed, fast-moving, vibrantly colored 3-D animation, the movie’s colors were muted and grainy and slowly sung songs filled a lot of the scenes. Thirty years of advances in animation definitely made the movie, with limited action and few surprises, seem dated but the story remained timeless.
It is a story about one creature helping another. It is a story of kindness, friendship, selflessness, self-sacrifice, humility, respect, life and death.
E. B. White’s story is profound and daunting in the undertaking of explaining the meaning of these concepts in a way that children understand. So he doesn’t tell them, he shows them through the love of two friends, a spider who is a selfless and caring writer who wants to help and a humble and kind pig who wants to live.
After revisiting this story, a particular question came to mind. Why didn’t anyone notice Charlotte? After all, it was she who accomplished the spectacular feat of writing in her web. Not once, in the story, did someone say, “Wow, that spider can spell and write words in her web!” Instead, the focus always remained on Wilbur and the wonderful things Charlotte would write about him. So that her web simply became a poster above Wilbur’s head, heralding his specialness.
Charlotte writes, in her web, that Wilbur is “some pig”, “terrific”, radiant”, and “humble”. He does, of course, possess all of these qualities but it is Charlotte and her writing that brings this to light and makes everyone else see his special traits. Upon reflection, I realized that I had answered my own question. No one sees Charlotte not because she is a writer but because she is the writer and a good one.
A good writer uses the power of words to create and develop a character so convincingly that the writer themselves are forgotten. And isn’t that precisely what Charlotte accomplishes? Her story of Wilbur is so well told that no one even perceives her existence in the process. Haven’t you ever read a story so well written and so engrossing that you completely lost sight of the writer? Even though you held the book in your hand with the author’s photo on the back, the writer no longer exists only the characters, the places and the experiences they create.
A good writer gives life to the characters just as Charlotte gave life to Wilbur. So the real question becomes how does a writer achieve this?
Perhaps we can learn from Charlotte. Choose your words carefully because they construct the emotion. Allow your characters to develop and show the qualities most interesting to the readers. Use the power of your words to make people care about your characters and what happens to them. Remember that when telling a story you, like Charlotte, are weaving a web. So make it intricate, make it interesting, and make it your own.
Causes Sherry Parnell Supports
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Habitat for Humanity, Heifer International