What strategies does the author, Yann Martel, use to introduce and develop character in Life of Pi?

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hgarey71 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Yann Martel's novel, Life of Pi, is certainly unique in the strategies it uses to develop the characters. Beginning with the author's note, the story of Piscine Patel unfolds. The narrator is an author (could be Martel, could be fictionalized—the lines are blurred) who is hungry for a story, and goes on a quest to find one after having been bitterly disappointed by his second novel's lack of performance. On his journey to India, he meets a man who tells him, "I have a story that will make you believe in God." Intrigued, the author tracks down Piscine Patel in Toronto, Canada, and Piscine (known as Pi) tells him his story. 

Throughout the book, the narrator's viewpoints are interspersed. He makes observations about Pi's life in the same fashion as an interviewer or a reporter. Readers learn about Pi's physical appearance, his abilities, like being a wonderful cook, and his surroundings. All this reveals more facets of the character of Pi than would be possible without this perspective, since throughout most of the book, Pi is the lone character shipwrecked with animals. 

Pi begins with his family history, the story behind his name, and his quest to find God through the study of three major religions: Catholicism, Hinduism, and Islam. Readers are drawn into Pi's quest to find God and are invested in his life by the time the shipwreck happens. Pi also relates his experience being a zookeeper's son. He has in-depth knowledge of many animals, especially the mind of a predator. His father was particularly careful to develop in Pi a healthy respect for predators. 

Once the family decides to move to Canada, the character of Pi is fully developed with backstory, motivations, and desires. If he were not such a well-developed character the story of the shipwreck could have become somewhat monotonous, but the way Martel has portrayed him has caused readers to become invested in his fate. Though readers know from the beginning that he survives the shipwreck, there are still major questions as to how he was able to survive as a boy, alone on the open ocean, with only zoo animals as company. 

Finally, at the end of the book when the investigators for the Japanese cargo ship that sunk come to question Pi, they cannot believe his outrageous story. They implore Pi to tell them the truth. Obliging, Pi tells the same story of his survival but turns the orangutan, the tiger, the hyena, and the zebra into people rather than animals. It is left to the reader which version of the story they will choose to believe. The last paragraph of the story gives an account of what the investigator chose to believe: 

"As an aside, story of sole survivor Mr. Piscine Molitor Patel, Indian citizen, is an astounding story of courage and endurance in the face of extraordinarily difficult and tragic circumstances. In the experience of this investigator, his story is unparalleled in the history of shipwrecks. Very few castaways can claim to have survived so long at sea as Mr. Patel, and none in the company of an adult Bengal tiger."

tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Yan Martel's novel, Life of Pi, introduces character in a couple of different ways. Since the narrator is also characterized in the story, he is involved intermittently throughout the narration as Pi's story unfolds. This technique seems to place the narrator in the story, but he's not actually a part of the story. That is to say, there is a story within a story, which produces a different effect between the narrator and Pi, as well as with the audience and the narrator.

Pi, on the other hand, is presented by the narrator, but also presents himself through his own perspective. Then, Pi presents other characters in the story, from his perspective as well, which begs the question, "Whose story is this?" Along the way, Pi presents animals as characters in his stories. The animals seem to be so real because of Pi's personal expertise on how each animal reacts in different environments (i.e. zoo habitats vs. stranded on the ocean). And with one of the greatest twists in literature, the animals are presented at the end as possible human substitutes to an alternate ending, which ultimately finishes with calling into question the story as a whole. If the characters aren't who or what Pi said they were, then the element of characterization shifts and challenges the reader's mind. Overall, it is brilliant!