How Cervantes Made His Characters Seem Real

With the release of The Man Who Invented Fiction, I thought I would devote this post (my first in quite some time) to highlighting what I feel was the most important thing I learned about Cervantes as a writer over the last several years of researching and writing the book. As is well known, the critical tradition has generally credited Cervantes with having invented the modern novel; but for me the true force of his innovation lies not so much in a specific literary form as in the structural trope he introduced into the medium of the printed word that enabled the modern experience of character.

In the 45th stanza of the first canto of Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme Liberata, published in 1581, two of Tasso’s great heroes, the knights Tancredi and Rinaldo, make their appearance:

Next comes Tancredi; and there is none among so many (except Rinaldo) either a greater swordsman, or handsomer in manners and in appearance, or of more exalted and unwavering courage. If any shadow of guilt makes less resplendent his great repute, it is only the folly of love: a love born amid arms, from a fleeting glimpse, that nurtures itself on sorrows and gathers strength.

A mere 24 years after the enormously successful publication of this great poem, Miguel de Cervantes has his own fearless and lovelorn knight step forth onto the glorious fields of Mars. Having spied “a large, thick cloud of dust coming toward them along the road they were traveling,” and overjoyed at the prospect of at last showing his prowess in war, Quixote urges Sancho up the nearest hill to get a better look at the armies. From their new vantage, the Don begins to narrate in terrific detail, exactly as Tasso or Ariosto would have done before him, all the famous knights and giants he spots among the two armies. But in lieu of recognized names of lore, he spouts utterly absurd inventions of his imagination, replete with signature arms, shields, and powers—all to the great bewilderment of his sidekick Sancho Panza, who sees nothing but great quantities of dust in the air:

“Señor, may the devil take me, but no man, giant, or knight of all those your grace has mentioned can be seen anywhere around here; at least, I don’t see them; maybe it’s all enchantment, like last night’s phantoms.”

“How can you say that?” responded Don Quixote. “Do you not hear the neighing of horses, the call of the clarions, the sounds of the drums?”

“I don’t hear anything,” responded Sancho, “except the bleating of lots of sheep.”

Cervantes’ view of the battlefield doesn’t differ from that of Tasso because of the depths of its description or the beauty of its verses. It differs in that, where Tasso’s verses describe for Tasso and his readers the essence of war, Cervantes’ prose describes how his characters perceive and misperceive war. Tasso’s words paint heroes; Cervantes’ lines animate characters.

Cervantes’ success in creating characters that feel like “real people” depended in part on his rich descriptions and his attentiveness to their voices; but underlying all his characters was his fascination with how different people might experience differently the same situation. This focus is present throughout Cervantes’ writing. Indeed, his ability to shift fluidly between different points of view and voices was fueled by his obsession with portraying not just the world and the people and events that fill it, but how people perceive and misperceive that world and each other. Just as his most important novel, Don Quixote, is organized around the central character’s inability to distinguish fantasy from reality, what makes all Cervantes’ characters stand out are the idiosyncrasies and differences of how each inhabits his or her world.

The uniqueness of each person’s perceptions is, to my mind, the source of the book’s extraordinary appeal; at its core is a sustained relationship between two characters whose incompatible takes on the world are overcome by friendship, loyalty, and even love. Sancho Panza, whose simplicity and oafish appetites often veil an inadvertent wisdom, knows Quixote is mad, and chooses to follow him anyway. When the mischievous duchess mentioned above elicits Sancho’s confession that he does indeed know Quixote is mad, and then accuses him of being “more of a madman and dimwit than his master” for following him, Sancho replies:

if I were a clever man, I would have left my master days ago. But this is my fate and this is my misfortune; I can’t help it; I have to follow him: we’re from the same village, I’ve eaten his bread, I love him dearly, he’s a grateful man, he gave me his donkeys, and more than anything else, I’m faithful; and so it’s impossible for anything to separate us except the man with his pick and shovel.

As Erich Auerbach wrote of Sancho’s attachment to Quixote, the former “learns from him and refuses to part with him. In Don Quijote’s company he becomes cleverer and better than he was before.”

Just as the tenderness evident in Sancho’s confession is conjured not in spite of but because of the very incompatibility of lived worlds it transcends, so too does the book’s famous humor function along these same parameters. When the hunch-backed and half-blind scullery maid Maritornes slips into bed with Don Quixote in the dark of night, the hilarity doesn't just come from the fact that she's fat and ugly and he's old and bony, or that her true amorous target, the mule driver, gets angry and beats Quixote up after he's already suffered two or three terrible beatings the same day. What makes the scene so funny is that Quixote is convinced that Maritornes is the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter and a princess to boot; that when he declaims about his devotion and service to her she doesn't have the slightest idea what he's talking about; and that the mule driver thinks his tryst for the night has preferred another man to him, and so hands him the beating that Quixote concludes must have come “from the arm of some monstrous giant.”

Don Quixote is indeed a very funny book; legend has is that King Philip III once exclaimed, upon seeing a student doubled up in raucous laughter one day, “that student is either out of his mind or he is reading the story of Don Quixote!” As such, it uses many of the same tricks and themes that have elicited laughter throughout human history, specifically the scatological and coprophiliac sensibilities that have clung to the lowest rungs of humor throughout literary history.

The French humanist François Rabelais, who lived in the century before Cervantes, was one of many sixteenth-century writers who relished a good dirty joke; and his enormously influential series of satirical novels about the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel are packed with scatological humor. Indeed, the principal character of his books, the giant Gargantua, is literally born in shit, his mother, the giantess Gargamelle having over-consumed on tripe the night she gives birth. Rabelais, a physician as well as a writer, revels in not sparing us the details:

A little while later she began to groan and wail and shout. Then suddenly swarms of midwives came up from every side, and feeling her underneath found some rather ill-smelling excrescences, which they thought were the child; but it was her fundament slipping out, because of the softening of her right intestine—which you call the bum-gut—owing to her having eaten too much tripe, as has been stated above.

Almost a century later, Cervantes would turn to such tried and true themes as well in his desire to spur his readers to laugh. But where prior writers focused their efforts on depicting the grotesque, the humor in his version derives almost entirely from how the two characters perceive and misperceive what is happening.

Lost in the woods in in the dead of night, Sancho becomes frightened by the sound of “strokes falling with a measured beat, and a certain rattling of iron and chains that, together with the furious din of the water, would have struck terror into any heart but Don Quixote's.” To prevent his master from heading toward the sound, Sancho secretly ties his master’s mount’s hind legs together and begins distracting him with stories, when he feels “the urge and desire to do what no one else could do for him.” Afraid to move away from Quixote, he first tries to relieve himself in secret, but finds he cannot do so without making a noise, as Cervantes writes, “quite different from the one that had caused him so much fear.”

"What sound is that, Sancho?" Quixote asks. "I don't know, senor," Sancho responds. "It must be something new; adventures and misadventures never begin for no reason." His second attempt is more successful, and silent, but this time it is another sense than hearing that gives him away, and Quixote remarks, holding his nose, "It seems to me, Sancho, that you are very frightened.”

The abyss that divides these two scatological moments in literary history is decisive. Where Rabelais achieves his effect by describing the obscenity of basic human functions with an anatomical zeal leavened by his impish disdain for propriety, Cervantes’ prose brings into relief his characters’ emotions, their embarrassment, their fear, their desire to pull the wool over one another’s eyes, and their rueful responses when they fail. Rabelais wrote patently untrue stories that entertained their readers with their bawdy satire; Cervantes wrote fiction.

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