A Kiss for Rudy

I have a thing for tragic heroes.

Snape. Boromir. Hamlet.

Rudy Steiner, the punky boy from Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

“A book floated down the Amper River.
A boy jumped in, caught up to it, and held
it in his right hand. He grinned. He stood
waist-deep in the icy, Decemberish water.
“How about a kiss, Saumensch?” he said.”

Oh, how The Book Thief broke my heart. Not just broke it, but ripped it out and trampled it on the floor in a most delicious, ‘I can’t wait to read this book again!’ sort of way. And the surprising thing was that I cried more over Rudy’s story than Liesel’s.

Rudy is a major minor character.

“How about a kiss, Saumensch?”
He stood waist-deep in the water for a few moments longer before climbing out and handing her the book. His pants clung to him, and he did not stop walking. In truth, I think he was afraid. Rudy Steiner was scared of the book thief’s kiss. He must have longed for it so much. He must have loved her so incredibly hard. So hard that he would never ask for her lips again and would go to his grave without them.”

Rudy isn’t the Book Thief, but his story intertwines with Liesel’s in such a way that both stories end up a richer, heightened experience. Because of Rudy’s story, we see Liesel’s heart. Because we see Liesel’s heart, our hearts break over Rudy.

How brilliant, creating secondary characters the reader cares as much about or even more about than the protagonist. From my reading experience, not many authors do this. Rarely do I read secondary characters so intriguing and real that I hang on every word, threatening to throw the book across the room if the author missteps, or — heaven forbid! — kills the character off.

“The tears grappled with her face.
Rudy, please, wake up, Goddamn it, wale up, I love you. Come on, Rudy, come on, Jesse Owens, don’t you know I love you, wake up, wake up, wake up.”
But nothing cared…

She leaned down and looked at his lifeless face and Liesel kissed her best friend, Rudy Steiner, soft and true on his lips. He tasted dusty and sweet. He tasted like regret in the shadows of trees and in the glow of the anarchist’s suit collection. She kissed him long and soft, and when she pulled herself away, she touched his mouth with her fingers. Her hands were trembling, her lips were fleshy, and she leaned in once more, this time losing control and misjudging it. Their teeth collided on the demolished world of Himmel Street.”

That was the point at which I threw The Book Thief across the room and cried into my pillow.

Really.

That’s the power of a major minor character. That’s the kind of character I want to read and, more importantly, write. Don’t you?

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