Breathing Life into a Character

There are plenty of skeptics out there (mainly those who don’t pick up books, because it simply isn’t worth their time) who seem to believe that Characters cannot be seen as real people. But what makes a character in the first place? Is it simply the physical appearance of a human? Yeah, no that’s not it, because if that was the case then we’d be admitting that Donald Trump is in fact human.

Seriously though, the basis of a character is the same basis as a person, their identity. Identity is a recurring theme that young adults are confronted with when they start developing their own values, ideas, and actions. The thing about identity is that people seem to consistently be caught up in this idea that you can never completely know who you are, which is understandable because you haven’t experienced everything in the world. Our actions, our thoughts, our emotions all define us when they are brought forth in different situations that life presents us with, but we can never experience EVERYTHING life has to offer. It’s just not possible, realistic, or something we’d all want to do. If we all wanted to figure out what every detail of who we really was we’d have to put ourselves in every type of situation imaginable, think about that for a second. So why don’t we base who we are today off of the experiences we have had up until this moment in life? Why can’t we accept and understand the person we see in the mirror that has only had the limited amount of experiences? Experiences can change our views, our ideas, our actions, meaning they can change us. So who we are today, isn’t necessarily who we are going to be tomorrow. It’s scary, and hard to process, but I think it’s something valuable to learn and understand.

Now I’ve spent all this time discussing identity, the base of a character and not enough time explaining why this is makes a Character real, but in order to do that I feel it necessary to understand the main character, Infemelu, of the book “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Infemelu is a Nigerian woman who at the age of nineteen immigrates to America for her education, and a new life. She’s in her prime, a young adult who has only ever known her home of Nigeria, and the people that surrounded her. Adichie’s use of Infemelu not only relates to young adult readers but also allows her to develop themes of identity throughout the novel, through Infemelu’s journey.

As Infemelu moves through her life in America it becomes clear that she isn’t quite sure how to balance the values, and ideas that she had believed in back home, versus the ones presented to her in America. At first she questions everything, why did her friend Ginika simply lose weight because America saw being “skinny” as beautiful, when in Nigeria Ginika was seen as the definition of beautiful? However, she also questioned her Aunty Uju, who couldn’t seem to adapt to her new surroundings either, she constantly said “this country…” and would end with something that differed America from Nigeria in a negative aspect. Infemelu’s critique of these two women in her life allows the audience to see the struggle she would similarly face when it came to forming her new values, while holding on to her old ones.

The scenarios that really stick out in the book, and confront Infemelu to grow as a person are her relationships. Through each of her relationships, from Obinze, to Curt, to her neighbor she cheated on curt with, to Blaine, and back to Obinze. It sounds ridiculous how these men actually forced her to realize that who she was shouldn’t be dependent upon them, but it’s true.

Her first relationship with Obinze ended because she had allowed a man to touch her, in a desperate and last resort for earning money. However, the reader can see that there’s more to it then just the horrible situation she was put in. Obinze and Infemelu were inseparable prior to Infemelu’s immigration to America. All she had ever really known about herself from Secondary school and on was being his girlfriend, living with him, loving him, and their thoughts and ideas. Though she may have had her own life, and she came from a different background, a lot of who she was became dependent upon him, and when she finally realized this, she distanced herself to try and figure out just what was happening. She couldn’t quite grasp why she couldn’t confide in her long term boyfriend, was it simply shame or maybe it was because she realized that back home the action she had just committed wasn’t one she would have made, she wouldn’t have needed to? She realized that who she was in Nigeria wasn’t the same girl she was now, and maybe she didn’t quite understand either versions of herself.

The second relationship was a little better, in terms of situation. Infemelu was floating on a cloud living with Curt, and I honestly believe that Adichie created Curt to show just how easy it is to be with someone without being your full self just for the sake of the relationship. For Infemelu the relationship only held one side of her, the one she presented to Americans. Her experiences had shaped who she was in America, but that didn’t automatically mean that the Nigerian side of her died away, but it appeared that way in her relationship with Curt. The reader was only able to see their trips around the world, Curt’s desire for adventure, and his lack of actual interest or knowledge of Infemelu’s culture or background. To be fair though, she didn’t exactly try to introduce him to it. With Curt only one side was brought out of her, and though Curt met her Aunty Uju and was great with Dike, that doesn’t count for understanding Infemelu and her experiences. It doesn’t count for understanding whom she was and what she stood for. Neither of them made the effort, because it was convenient. It was an easy relationship that was up in the air from the start; it was to be seen as long term.

Now, one might argue that Infemelu cheating on Curt was insignificant, but actually it showed quite a bit about her character. It showed that when it came to her happiness, sometimes she could be narrowed minded and only think of herself in a situation. It also kind of foreshadows how she doesn’t see being the other woman in Obinze’s life as a problem, until he is unable to commit to her. She never thought about Curt when she cheated on him, and she didn’t think of Obinze’s wife and daughter and how her actions would affect them. This is a flaw that Adichie uses to make Infemelu human, because if we all were perfect then we’d all be alike.

Finally we come to Blaine, my absolute least favorite man Infemelu dated, why? Because he is literally everything I’d detest in a man. You know those people that enter your life, and you look up to because they seem so…in control, know where they are going, and understand the ways of the world? Okay so that’s Blaine…but add to that the arrogance and belief that all people should think like he does, and suddenly you’ve got a control freak that’s slowly changing the way you talk, write, live and eventually view the world. Yes, there are many people out there like this, some who don’t even realize that that’s what they act like, but it’s a problem. When Infemelu gets into a relationship with Blaine she not only looks up to him because of his knowledge and views, but his acceptance of her culture. With Blaine she can be both American, and Nigerian. She doesn’t have to explain to him the prejudices she has faced in this country regarding the color of her skin, nor does she ignore her culture for him.

That’s all well and good, until she started eating like he does, it’s not a bad idea being healthy, but she loves chocolate bars…I’m just saying that if I dated a guy and he got me into a health kick, there is no way in the world that he is getting me to give up chocolate, no matter how great he is. It’s just not happening. Food was just the beginning, soon it was how she wrote her blogs, he ended up correcting, editing, and changing her voice to seem more of what he deemed “intellectual”, “academic” or “subtle”. Infemelu’s blog was her way of having a place to vocalize her views, observations, and ideas of America, things that she wouldn’t normally be able to say to those around her, and for Blaine to change up how she voiced those opinions truly reflects how much he thought that people should be like him. There’s no problem in harmless editing, but the moment Infemelu realizes that Blaine tried to change how her voice is heard is the moment she began to withdraw. He was changing her, and he thought that what he was passionate about, she should also be passionate about. This is one of the main reasons why he was so upset she didn’t attend his protest, and this is also the main reason she didn’t attend it. He assumed she would understand and believe in the cause like him, and she didn’t. Relationships are between two people, not the same person. Adichie’s use of this relationship brings forth this idea that your identity shouldn’t be compromised for someone else, simply because their views don’t match your own. When she presents Infemelu with this conflict she gradually forces Infemelu and the audience to see that the relationship was unhealthy for both sides.

Where does Obinze finally play into this big picture then? He comes in at the very ending, after the affair the two shared and everything, Infemelu realizes that she needs to reconcile and let the past be the past, while also taking charge of her future. After getting closure with all her two ex-boyfriends, and Obinze comes to see herI think this was Adichie’s way of showing that Infemelu was done with men dictating her life, and who she was. Throughout Infemelu and Obinze’s affair infemelu was dependent upon Obinze and when he could see her, when he could make time for her, when he could sneak away from his life for her. She had no control, she had little respect, she wasn’t able to be with the man she loved because of their situation and it wasn’t one she should have put herself in. Obinze began this process of identification, and ended it. Adichie uses him to push Infemelu to understand that she needs to only learn who she is, and learn to respect the person she has become.

What breathes life into a character? Their complex identity makes them alive, because humans have complex identities that get tangled, and wrapped up in our experiences. Adichie is critical of Infemelu’s growth and understanding of herself throughout her relationship with the men she meets through her journey of discovering herself. Infemelu realizes that in order to take charage of her life, and not have those around her influence her actions and beliefs she herself needs to understand what she believes in, and what she wants from herself. She understands that her identity is the culmination of her experiences and how she used them in her daily life. By coming to this realization she is able to make her own decisions, be her own person, and truly understand who she is and why she should respect herself.


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