Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

“Charlie Gordon will break your heart.” I couldn’t agree more.

Keyes paints a tragic, beautiful tale about a mentally retarded man who undergoes experimental surgery to raise his IQ. The result is the haunting juxtaposition of two Charlie Gordons: one racing to the limits of human intelligence, the other fighting to reclaim his forgotten past.

The narrative is told over a series of “progress reports” written by Charlie, in which he shares his intellectual development, his innermost thoughts, and his dreams and repressed memories. This style allows the reader to forge an intriguing, complicated relationship with Charlie. I sympathized with him for the hardships he faced, I resented him as his intelligence dominated his good nature… Through the subtle manipulation of Charlie’s emotions and attitudes, Keyes ensures the reader’s attitude toward Charlie and his circumstances.

Charlie Gordon is by no means a perfect person, but Keyes’ development of his character and his journey are as close to perfect as they can be. I’m still trying to understand myself how I came to feel so many contradicting emotions toward Charlie all at once. What I do understand is that Flowers for Algernon is unlike any book I have ever read, and I hope to someday be even half as effective as Keyes at creating dynamic characters with such a profound effect on my readers.

My advice as a lowly novice writer:

Great characters are not made necessarily by what they are, but how they feel to the reader. Charlie Gordon feels honest, real, and compelling, even if he isn’t all of these things all the time. What can we learn from this? Well, what stands out most about Charlie are his flaws. Flaws, vulnerabilities, genuine moments of weakness are what allow us to forgive characters for being everything but perfect; they’re what remind us that they are human, just like us, only better. The closer we are to characters’ weaknesses, the closer we are to the character themselves, and the easier it is for us to appreciate their strengths.

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