You have the makings of an unforgettable hero. Before you go too far, understand—it’s your cast of characters that will determine whether or not your hero becomes inimitable.
Living persons are not stagnant. We live in flux, ever attempting to gain our footing or get a step ahead. Anne Tyler is a master when it comes to the fluidity of personality. Anne Tyler is a master when it comes to fiction writing, period, which is why I’ve chosen one of her novels to examine the dynamics of cast and the strategic choices to consider when creating them.
Tyler, whose novels hone in on the subtleties of ordinary people in ordinary families, gives us stellar casts. Her characters’ temperaments wax and wane, not by the threat of global doom, but as they orbit the constellation of their significant relationships.
Maggie Moran of Breathing Lessons: A Novel (winner of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in fiction and Time magazine’s Book of the Year) is no exception.
When it comes to temperaments, Maggie and her husband Ira model a three-dimensional version of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo. Tyler has so configured their universe to foster the disparity between Maggie and Ira, as it is their disparate natures that both compensate for their extremes and sends them hurtling to their extremes. Repulsed by the idea of replicating her mother’s role as the family heavyweight, Maggie sought and married a non-compliant curmudgeon. Had Tyler matched her with a more simpatico spouse, it’s doubtful Maggie Moran would have displayed her winsome eccentricities—either that, or such eccentricity would have struck an irrelevant note.
Meet Maggie Moran
If you haven’t read Breathing Lessons, here’s how Tyler introduces her heroine—
They planned to wake up at seven, but Maggie must have set the alarm wrong and so they overslept. They had to dress in a hurry and rush through breakfast, making do with faucet coffee and cold cereal. Then Ira headed off for the store on foot to leave a note for his customers, and Maggie walked to the body shop. She was wearing her best dress—blue and white sprigged, with cape sleeves—and crisp black pumps, on account of the funeral. The pumps were only medium-heeled but slowed her down some anyway; she was more used to crepe soles. Another problem was that the crotch of her panty hose had somehow slipped to about the middle of her thighs, so she had to take shortened, unnaturally level steps like a chunky little windup toy wheeling along the sidewalk.
…She patted down her bangs where they tended to frizz out like a forelock. She hugged her dress-up purse under her arm. She turned left at the corner and there was Harbor Body and Fender, with the peeling green garage doors already hoisted up and the cavernous interior smelling of some sharp-scented paint that made her think of nail polish.
She had her check all ready and the manager said the keys were in the car, so in no time she was free to go. The car was parked toward the rear of the shop, an elderly gray-blue Dodge. It looked better than it had in years. They had straightened the rear bumper, replaced the mangled trunk lid, ironed out a half-dozen crimps here and there, and covered over the dapples of rust on the doors. Ira was right: no need to buy a new car after all. She slid behind the wheel. When she turned the ignition key, the radio came on—Mel Spruce’s AM Baltimore, a call-in talk show. She let it run, for the moment. She adjusted the seat, which had been moved back for someone taller, and she tilted the rearview mirror downward. Her own face flashed toward her, round and slightly shiny, her blue eyes quirked at the inner corners as if she were worried about something when in fact she was only straining to see in the gloom. She shifted gears and sailed smoothly toward the front of the shop, where the manager stood frowning at a clipboard just outside his office door.
Today’s question on AM Baltimore was: “What Makes an Ideal Marriage?” A woman was phoning in to say it was common interests. “Like if you both watch the same kind of programs on TV,” she explained. Maggie couldn’t care less what made an ideal marriage. (She’d been married twenty-eight years.) She rolled down her window and called, “Bye now!” and the manager glanced up from his clipboard. She glided past him—a woman in charge of herself, for once, lipsticked and medium-heeled and driving an undented car.
A soft voice on the radio said, “Well, I’m about to remarry. The first time was purely for love. It was genuine, true love and it didn’t work at all. Next Saturday I’m marrying for security.”
Maggie looked over at the dial and said, “Fiona?”
She meant to brake, but accelerated instead and shot out of the garage and directly into the street. A Pepsi truck approaching from the left smashed into her left front fender—the only spot that had never, up till now, had the slightest thing go wrong with it.
Back when Maggie played baseball with her brothers, she used to get hurt but say she was fine, for fear they would make her quit. She’d pick herself up and run on without a limp, even if her knee was killing her. Now she was reminded of that, for when the manager rushed over, shouting, “What the …? Are you all right?” she stared straight ahead in a dignified way and told him, “Certainly. Why do you ask?” and drove on before the Pepsi driver could climb out of his truck, which was probably just as well considering the look on his face. But in fact her fender was making a very upsetting noise, something like a piece of tin dragging over gravel, so as soon as she’d turned the corner and the two men—one scratching his head, one waving his arms—had disappeared from her rearview mirror, she came to a stop. Fiona was not on the radio anymore…
The fact that the call-in speaker on the radio wasn’t Fiona, her ‘almost’ daughter-in-law, shouldn’t surprise you. Maggie Moran is a well-meaning, absent-minded and easily misled middle-aged wife and mother who can’t conceive of a reason to stop meddling in her children’s affairs.
Two Opposites Make One Whole
Great stories share a common denominator, that of juxtaposing opposites.
Opposites compliment, opposites conflict. When someone encounters his or her opposite, that someone is changed. And stories are about change.
As with you and me, the elusive truth on which our characters’ wholeness depend confronts them when they mix it up with those who are different. It shouts loud and clear when they look to their opposites and attempt to negotiate with worn-out defenses. Stories with heroes bound to their opposites transform that key bit of knowledge hidden from them into ticking bombs.
Unlike freewheeling Maggie, her husband is fastidious. It could be said that Ira lives by the clock, and the time and place allotted to raising children has come and gone. Ira has the fixtures and functions of his black and white world labeled and filed. Alterations, extenuations—ambiguity of any shade—derail the alignment of life’s compartments. And Maggie winds him up, for she laughs too much, cries too much, is too passionate. Maggie is impetuous, hopelessly and disruptively impetuous.
Obsessed with sweetening an eternal springtime for one and all, Mrs. Moran’s mothering knows no limits. She fusses over her brood of strays with an attention best reserved for the intimate few. She also confides her heart to any stranger to indulge her. In contrast, Mr. Moran possesses a keen and narrow sense of boundaries. The bane of Ira’s life is that he can’t corral the love of his life, which, by proxy, leaves him without a border to barbwire. Ira’s resentments extend to his adult children, as Maggie refuses to surrender Jesse and Daisy to their adult lives. Sucked into her schemes for fixing whoever needs fixing, Ira matches Maggie’s Pollyanna with a devotion to souring her notions and acts-of-Pollyanna-in-progress.
“Wake up and smell the coffee!” he says, stealing his potshots from Ann Landers. They hit their mark, albeit indirectly, making Maggie jealous of the remote vixen of perfection. Ira would have preferred Ann Landers to her.
Pollyanna notwithstanding, Maggie Moran’s “knobby, fumbling way of progressing through life” hasn’t eluded her. Considered a klutz by those near and far, her sense of competence is restricted to the company of the elderly. She fantasizes, in fact, about running away with Mr. Gabriel, one of the octogenarians at the nursing home where she works. Indisputably, Maggie could never, would never abandon her loved ones, and the fantasy tarnishes when she realizes that Mr. Gabriel is Ira by another name.
To her husband’s linear logic, Maggie ricochets in escalating fantasy-based associations. It’s Ira’s far-flung association, though, that has him believing she can read his mind. As it happens, he hums tunes that vary with his mood and clue Maggie in to his thoughts.
Poly-Opposite versus Absolute Opposite
Note that the two primary characters in Breathing Lessons are opposite on multiple plains, rather than one. Their personalities aren’t simply different, they’re diametrically opposed. Consider some of the ways Maggie and Ira Moran contrast.
- consistent→partitioned, contained
Tyler uses imagery to fortify plot, character, and theme and, as we might expect, hasn’t neglected to call on the names of her lead’s. Maggie (magpie) from the name Margret, means pearl, perhaps as in ‘pearl of great price’; and Ira (irascible, irri, irate) means watchful, full-grown.
But Ira and Maggie aren’t entirely opposite. Each character’s history includes a form of public singing. Ira, like Maggie, is a caretaker (reluctantly). Both are discontent, both carry an inordinate burden of responsibility, and both battle with pride—Maggie masking hers with joviality and deceit and Ira resorting to intimidation when he feels vulnerable. In spite of Maggie’s flair for the Pollyanna, she shares a dose of Ira’s pessimism, as seen in the following passage.
…there was no such thing on this earth as real change. You could change husbands, but not the situation. You could change who, but not what. We’re all just spinning here, she thought, and she pictured the world as a little blue teacup, revolving like those rides at Kiddie Land where everyone is pinned to his place by centrifugal force.
A strong cast is one where personalities overlap ever so slightly. Among key players it’s advantageous to fashion common ground as a thin ledge perched high above and require the story world to rise to its level. Even the villains we most love to hate share a slice of commonality with their heroes.
Sins of the Father
While working with his father throughout his boyhood, Ira lived in the aura of a dream—he would become a physician. And not just a physician, but a pioneering physician. He would develop a cure for… something. But Ira quit his destiny when his father retired at an early age and sentenced him to take over the family picture-framing business to support his clan, which includes two shut-in sisters.
Ira feels trapped by dependents—framed in, like an inanimate portrait. “His sisters’ hands dragged him down the way drowning victims drag down whoever tries to rescue them.” And just as a flat photograph can’t compete with the people who posed for it, Ira’s image of his family can’t compete with the ideal he had envisioned for his life.
Now fifty-years-old, he hasn’t accomplished “one single act of consequence.” To allay his disillusionment, Ira turns his focus on the mechanics of motors, studying the small appliances tucked away in the homes of people he and Maggie visit. It’s as if he wants to understand how these families operate. In his own home, where preoccupation is needed to block out Maggie’s meddling, he immerses himself in games of solitaire. Through silence he might make himself invisible, hence, unavailable.
Despite maintaining two families for several decades, Ira’s untraveled dream condemns him as a failure. He feels flawed and small and wears perfectionism to brace his pride. Projecting his disillusionment on others, he especially berates his son Jesse, “Mr. Moment-by-moment.” In truth, Ira views Jesse’s tenacity to achieve his dream of becoming a rock star as a reproach. He assumes Jesse thinks he’s nothing but a mealy shopkeeper, plugging away at insignificance.
Creating Casts for Leverage
Through the story’s cast, Tyler leverages Breathing Lesson’s plot while supplying it with complimentary subplots. As well, she reinforces its theme of joy and regret and distinguishing one’s identity within the union of marriage and family.
The two Moran children, Jesse and Daisy, mirror their parent’s polarity. Like his mother, Jesse is a dreamer. Ira’s disillusionment with his life is at the crux of his relationship with Jesse. It doesn’t help that Jesse is a jobless high school dropout who got 17-year-old Fiona pregnant.
Like her father, Daisy Moran is meticulous, pragmatic, logical. At thirteen-months-old, she took on and conquered the task of toilet training herself. By first grade, she began setting her alarm an hour early to afford time to iron and color-coordinate her clothes. But even Ira’s ‘sensible’ daughter reproaches him, as he sees in Daisy a child saddled with adult responsibility—a child he burdened with responsibility the way his father had burdened him. In Daisy’s “pinchfaced” disapproval, he sees the man he has become.
Having known a dearth of joy, Ira understands, if only in the pit of his soul, that the energy and fallout of policing his creed of efficiency and responsibility removes him further from finding joy—most crucially, from finding it in the “jolly, noisy” family he’s craved since childhood.
Factor Maggie into his emotional landscape—Maggie, who doesn’t hesitate to reach from the passenger side to honk the horn of the car Ira is driving, which is a metaphor of their marriage and family journey—and perhaps Ira is more patient than he is curmudgeonly. It’s fair to say Maggie has ‘horning in’ down to an artform, particularly after she shows up at an abortion clinic wielding a fairytale version of her son to steer Fiona into Jesse’s arms.
Perceiving Is Believing
Maggie believes it’s her job to hold up the sun and moon and keep the stars on their rightful course. If she doesn’t act no one will. For her, it’s “as if the world were the tiniest bit out of focus …and if she made the smallest adjustment everything would settle perfectly into place.” So when Jesse fails to talk Fiona into marrying him, he is able to recruit Maggie as his go-between.
Maggie, of course, is hardwired to mend breaches, but human motivation, in reality, is complex. In Anne Tyler’s fictional worlds, reality is scarcely better replicated. Maggie wants to outfit her son’s world to his liking, and Maggie wants to fit that new baby into her empty, lifeless nest. Her future—and Jesse’s too—is bellied in this child groupie. Whether it comes to fruition or is snuffed out relies on her ability to save the world, and thus save herself.
Outside the abortion clinic, Maggie argues with Fiona… and with Fiona’s sister, who arranged the abortion and insists that Fiona see it through… and with the picketers who mob the three women. But accustomed to opposition on all sides and the jarring piano-wire anxiety that accompanies it, Maggie convinces Fiona to come with her to see the cradle her son is hypothetically making.
Once Maggie gets Fiona at the house her madcap romps to seal the deal reaches its height. She races around in search of Jesse’s Doctor Spock and the cradle blueprint to show Fiona how much Jesse wants this child—and her. When she’s unable to locate a trace of evidence, she grabs a fistful of Ira’s dowels and waves them at Fiona, claiming they’re spindles for Jesse’s cradle.
Lying for the greater good, Maggie ‘adjusts’ Fiona’s focus and the young woman, who wants a mother figure more than she needs a husband, moves into the Moran house. Maggie succeeds in persuading the couple to marry and assumes the role of Fiona’s labor coach, forcing a regiment of “breathing lessons” on a mother-to-be who would prefer to lie on the couch drinking Fresca and overdosing on syndicated reruns of The Love Boat.
In yet another relationship, Tyler pins opposite against opposite. In Fiona’s lacidasical approach to life, she juxtaposes Maggie, but with such freshness that Fiona serves as Ira’s antithesis, as well, which compounds the touchpoints of conflict. Among the women’s opposite traits, Tyler includes the complimentary ‘I want to mother‘ with ‘I want a mother’.
And soon, granddaughter Leroy sleeps in the crib set up—where else?—in Maggie’s bedroom. At the other end of the house the newlyweds quarrel, and the prospect of happily-ever-after comes to an abrupt end. Fiona chooses to sequester herself and the baby in her wretched mother’s house, rather than the relatively ‘functional’ Moran home.
Distance, though, doesn’t prevent Maggie from cloak-and-dagger sorties to the country to spy on her granddaughter. It’s no wonder she heard Fiona’s voice in the radio caller talking about remarriage. Her shenanigans infuriate Ira, who sees Maggie’s “refusal to take her own life seriously” as though she thinks it’s a practice run, “… as if they offered second and third chances to get it right.”
And on this canvas, a day in the life unfolds. When Maggie’s best friend’s husband dies, Maggie and Ira embark on a 90-mile detour-ridden road trip in a car that runs well enough to get them to their destination, in spite of its unsightly, bruised fender (expanding on her metaphor of their marriage).
From Birth and Divorce to Death and Marriage
Maggie and Ira arrive in rural Pennsylvania where Serena Palermo, Maggie’s longstanding girlfriend has planned an exotic funeral for her husband. The high school gang’s all there, home movies of their younger selves are playing reunion-style, and the gypsy-ish Serena, dressed in red, is caught up in visions of a burial that will mirror her and Max’s wedding. The same songs will be sung, the same readings will be read. Maggie and Ira are taken back by the idea, particularly when they realize that Serena expects them to reprise their 30-year-old duet of ”Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.”
Anything but a typical gathering, Tyler brings characters together as though holding up swatches or snapshots of life, each of which contains elements of sameness and difference, as well as of change and stasis. We see characters as they were, young and naïve, and as they are, old and naïve. In another swatch, we see the same people as old and jaded. Simultaneously, we see intact friendships and friends at a remove. We also see the beginning of marriage superimposed over the marriage’s end. And, as we’ve experienced death within the Moran’s marriage, Tyler now juxtaposes their ‘living death’ against the irrevocable finality that will confront them one day.
Ira, of course, bails on the duet, and Maggie performs with a stand-in. She and Serena then reflect on life and love. Maggie’s reality didn’t match the romance hyped in love songs. Serena had thought marriage would be comfortable, “like getting out of a girdle.” For her, it was. She tells Maggie how it feels to lose a spouse—“All at once I had no one to trade looks with.” Maggie thinks about death and it makes her aware that she’s living a real life.
And as memories revive dormant feelings in her, Maggie pulls Ira into Serena’s bedroom and gets him to make love. Serena catches them with their pants down, so to speak, kicks them out, and the Moran* journey resumes.
*Is the Moran surname chosen to bring the word moron to mind? Indeed, the Moran’s are ignorant of what they have in each other.
The Circle of Life
Back on the road, Maggie and Ira come upon an old man who falls to the pavement after his car breaks down. Maggie convinces Ira to stop and convinces Mr. Otis to allow them to take him home. On the lamb from his angry wife due to a dream she had where his actions offended her, Mr. Otis points Ira in the direction of his nephew’s garage.
Once there, Ira and Maggie find themselves in the middle of another family’s mess.
“You just got to go on back home and make up,” Lamont told Mr. Otis. “Quit drawing this thing out and apologize to Aunt Duluth and get that rust heap out of folkses’ way.”
“I can’t apologize! I ain’t done nothing to be sorry for,” Mr. Otis said.
“What’s the difference, man? Apologize even so.”
“See, I couldn’t have done it; it was only in her dream. Duluth went and had this dream, see—”
“You been married fifty-some years to that woman,” Lamont said, “and half of those years the two of you been in a snit about something. She ain’t speaking to you or you ain’t speaking to her or she moves out or you moves out. Shoot, man, one time you both moves out and leaves your house standing empty. Plenty would give their right arms for a nice little house like you-all’s, and what do you do? Leave it stand empty while you off careening about in your Chevy and Aunt Duluth’s sleeping on Florence’s couch discommoding her family.”
A reminiscent smile crossed Mr. Otis’s face. “It’s true,” he said. “I had thought I was leaving her, that time, and she thought she was leaving me.”
“You two act like quarrelsome children,” Lamont told him.
“Well, at least I’m still married, you notice!” Mr. Otis said. “At least I’m still married, unlike some certain others I could name!”
Ira said, “Well, at any rate—”
“Even worse than children,” Lamont went on, as if he hadn’t heard. “Children at least got the time to spare, but you two are old and coming to the end of your lives. Pretty soon one or the other of you going to die and the one that’s left behind will say, ‘Why did I act so ugly? That was who it was; that person was who I was with; and here we threw ourselves away on spitefulness,’ you’ll say.”
“Well, it’s probably going to be me that dies first,” Mr. Otis said, “so I just ain’t going to worry about that.”
“I’m serious, Uncle.”
“I’m serious. Could be what you throw away is all that really counts; could be that’s the whole point of things, wouldn’t that be something? Spill it! Spill it all, I say! No way not to spill it. And anyhow, just look at the times we had. Maybe that’s what I’ll end up thinking. ‘My, we surely did have us a time. We were a real knock-down, drag-out, heart-and-soul type of couple,’ I’ll say.”
And there’s Ira—“Well, not to change the subject.” Ira tries to make his exit while Mr. Otis, carrying on about his divorced nephew, shadows his steps to the car—
“A man who up and splits at the first little setback. Lives alone all pruned and puckerish, drying out like a raisin. Sets alone in front of the TV, night after night, and won’t go courting nobody new for fear she’ll do him like his wife did.”
“Tsk,” Maggie says. “Well, listen,” Ira stays on mission. When his wife offers to drive, he says “that’s all right”, and calls her sweetheart. Just the same, Maggie interprets the pass on her offer as an insult. Readers get the impression, having lived with the Moran’s to this point, that prior to the day’s events the couple would have succumbed to quibbling over who meant what. Instead, Maggie starts singing, and Ira comes in with boom-da-da, boom-da-da.
Wheeling down Route One once more, they pass the cutoff to Fiona’s house. Maggie wants to stop in and to her surprise, Ira concedes, even though the time allotted to caring about Fiona and Leroy has come and gone.
“I’m coming Leroy, don’t forget me Leroy!”—the mantra of Maggie’s spying days revives with visions of her baby granddaughter. It’s thus a shock when Maggie and Ira pull into Fiona’s driveway and see a skinny seven-year-old playing alone in the yard. Immersed in memories of the infant in her arms, Maggie must “leap across time” to reconcile the images.
Leroy, of course, has no concept of who she and Ira are. It strikes Maggie that even Leroy’s father would need to introduce himself. Clearly, the stars are not on their rightful course.
When Maggie learns that she mistook the radio caller for Fiona, she’s relieved and embarrassed. While waiting for Ira to say “I told you so,” (he never does), she becomes convinced that she can get the couple back together. Maggie cajoles Fiona and Leroy to come to Baltimore with them and phones Jesse to arrange for him to call round later that day.
Surprise, surprise… the plan backfires. With the sour taste of déja vu, Maggie has a “sudden view of her life as circular. It forever repeated itself, and … was entirely lacking in hope.”
Eccentric or Visionary?
Will the real Maggie Moran please stand up? Whether Ann Tyler’s heroine was a meddler or a woman whose heart enabled her to see the gem of love buried in unlikely places, Maggie has reached her end. Returned home, she cries, “What are we two going to live for, all the rest of our lives?”
Ira, though, a bit wiser, knows the answer. The “waste” in his life, he realizes, didn’t involve his failed dream. The waste was what he might have thrown away—“his failure to notice how he loved”. It was the heft of Maggie’s meddling heart that kept him spinning in her orbit all these years.
In the end, life consists of a long chain of breaths, in and out, give and take. In Breathing Lessons, Anne Tyler captures the inextricable nature of our shared worlds. Anything can happen, everything does, nothing changes. Husbands and wives sometimes fall out of love. Husbands and wife sometimes fall in love again.
If you haven’t read Breathing Lessons, don’t let my choppy summation deter you. Writers would benefit from adding Anne Tyler’s oeuvre to their library. She’ll entertain the reader in you while lending the artist techniques and content that inspires.