How to Play “This I Believe” with Your Characters

25 Jul

Owen Egerton’s novel Hollow, according to a NPR review, contains “the kind of grace not usually seen in accessible modern fiction.”

A few years ago, National Public Radio ran a series called “This I Believe.” People, some famous and some not, wrote short essays about their beliefs. It was fascinating because of the weight that we give to those three words. To go public and say “I believe ____” is much different from saying, “I think ___.” We associate the word beliefs with something deeply held and essential to the decisions we make every day. Beliefs are not easily changed, and when they challenged, the internal crisis we feel can leave us distraught.

As writers, we can use our characters’ beliefs against them for gripping results. Owen Egerton offers a perfect demonstration of this in his new novel Hollow. You can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a crisis of faith experienced by Oliver Bonds, a beloved religious studies professor at the University of Texas. After his son dies, his life unravels until he is nearly homeless, his only friend a man who wants to join an expedition to the North Pole to discover an entrance to the Hollow Earth. In this passage, Bonds describes his belief system before his son died:

I believed I believed nothing.

It wasn’t true.

I believed, without ever saying it, that the world was basically good. I believed moral behavior was rewarded by the world. I believed cruelty to be its own kind of punishment. And though I never would have admitted it to anyone, least of all myself, I believed that the most horrible things don’t really happen.

I saw the photos of typhoons drowning entire villages or genocidal wars. Monthly I tithed to charities aiming to end modern slavery or encourage basic health care in poorer nations. But in some deep secret way, I didn’t believe in these tragedies. They were distant, unreal, fantastic. Or, worse, I believed I simply didn’t see the bigger picture, the vague grander scheme that explained these tragedies.

I had one over-arching belief, so basic to my life that I never felt the need to distinguish it as a belief any more than a person would count the sun’s heat as an article of faith. I believed the world made sense.

Clearly, the passage lays out his beliefs, but what makes it really interesting is the phrase “I believed, without ever saying it…” We probably all hold beliefs that are both too important and too fragile to articulate to others or ourselves. We’re afraid to speak them aloud because we know there are arguments against them, and we worry not just that someone might make us look foolish but that we might not hold the belief as firmly as we thought.

Those are the soft points that, as writers, we must press hard upon. And Egerton does, to devastating and thrilling effect.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s clearly state a character’s beliefs, using Hollow by Owen Egerton as a model:

  1. Start with the easy beliefs. It’s pretty difficult to immediately jump into something as sensitive as our most deeply held beliefs. You’re not likely to share your own with a random person, and neither are our characters. So, don’t make them. Instead, let your characters talk about their beliefs about basic elements of their lives: their partners, kids, friends, jobs, schools, hobbies, etc. Get them talking. This is a brainstorming exercise, and so let your characters say whatever they want—whether it’s in first person or if you’re saying it for them in third person.
  2. Push on those beliefs a little. Try using this sentence starter: “I don’t usually tell people this, but I sometimes wonder if…” You can also change the pronouns to the third person. You’re searching for a belief that is the equivalent of a friends-only Facebook post, something that might require a personal connection to fully understand or that the speaker might not want perfect strangers to know. You can try something embarrassing or funny or whatever. You’re playing, so don’t overthink it.
  3. Keep going until you find yourself feeling uncomfortable. Your character is most likely not you, nor even some version of you. But you should still pay attention to your own comfort level. We’re often made uncomfortable by people revealing things that we, personally, are fine with, but we sense that they are not and so we begin to cringe. If something you write makes you cringe, even a little, follow it.
  4. Use the belief against your character. Oliver Bonds believes that the world is basically good and sensible, and so Egerton challenges him with something awful and senseless. How will he respond? What will he do? This is the basis of the entire novel.

The goal is to discover your story’s plot by finding out what your characters believe and introducing elements that make those beliefs seem untenable.

Good luck.

An Interview with Nicky Drayden

20 Jul

Nicky Drayden is the author of the novel The Prey of Gods, named a Wall Street Journal and Barnes & Noble pick for best read of the year so far.

Nicky Drayden is the author of the novel The Prey of Gods. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Shimmer and Space and Time. She is a systems analyst and resides in Austin, Texas, where being weird is highly encouraged, if not required.

To read an excerpt from The Prey of Gods and an exercise on foreshadowing later novel developments, click here.

In this interview, Drayden discusses throwing together random characters from her sketch file, creating consequences for fantastical elements, and getting readers to identify with characters.

Michael Noll

There are so many different characters in the book—and so many different aspects from various types of science fiction and fantasy genres. Were all of the characters and all of the elements (gods, artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation) present from the beginning, or did you discover some of them as you wrote?

Nicky Drayden

Right before I started writing The Prey of Gods, I picked six random characters from my character sketch file and stuck them in a setting together. I had a pretty good idea of what would happen in each character’s first chapter, so many of the plot and genre elements were at least seeded in my mind, but I had no outline beyond that. Weaving together these disparate storylines was one of the most challenging parts of writing the novel. But it was a lot of fun, too.

Michael Noll

In the same vein, there are so many wild things that happen in the book—which is one of the traits that reviewers have remarked upon, favorably. In a way, the novel reminds me of when I used to teach creative writing to third-graders, and every story they wrote gradually added new layers: dinosaurs, ninjas, robots, meteors, etc. At a certain point, their stories weren’t really stories anymore but accumulations of interesting things. Your novel is like that in a way–it’s full of scenes that seem more imaginative and interesting than the last one, but never collapses under the weight of so many cool elements. Was it ever difficult to maintain an air of plausibility? Did you find yourself cutting scenes or parts because they seemed like one thing too many? 

Nicky Drayden

Wow, I would totally read a story about dinosaur robot ninjas in a meteor shower! Yeah, I probably walked right up to that line of “too much” and spit over it. I never questioned if I was throwing in too much spectacle, but I did spend a lot of time setting up consequences to the fantastical elements to make them more palatable. Mind control can be seen as your standard wish fulfillment scenario, but when you learn that every time Muzi control someone’s mind, he gets imprinted with that person’s darkest memory, all of a sudden readers are like….ohhhhh. The plot is outrageous and fantastical, but the consequences of those fantastical elements are real and relatable. At least, that’s what I was aiming for.

Michael Noll

Nicky Drayden’s debut novel The Prey of Gods is set in a futuristic South Africa where gods, drugs, genetic manipulation, and robots collide.

The basic premise of the novel is eye-catching, but we don’t really learn what it is until about 60 pages in—and that one short lab scene is just one part of the overall plot. One of the things that you sometimes hear as a writer is that the plot should kick off early. Did you ever experiment with front loading the plot in a different way?

Nicky Drayden

Establishing six different characters takes a bit of time, and basically you have the equivalent of asking your reader to start six different books. This requires a reader to put tremendous trust in the author, which can be tough with a debut novel. If you start off with interesting characters in sticky situations, I think you can get away with quite a bit before readers start wondering when the plot is going to kick in. A hallucinogenic drug. A secretly sentient AI. A nail tech giving magical manicures, and a little girl who discovers she can fly. You get all that in the first four chapters, which gives you a taste of the strangeness to come. And the upside of having six characters is that almost every reader will be able to identify strongly with at least one of them.

July 2017

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

Give Readers a Sneak Peak at the Wild Action to Come

18 Jul

Nicky Drayden’s debut novel The Prey of Gods is set in a futuristic South Africa where gods, drugs, genetic manipulation, and robots collide.

As a novelist, you will one day inevitably be required to write a query letter or pitch an agent in person, and you’ll quickly realize how important it is to get straight to whatever element of your story can fascinate and intrigue in a sentence or two. It’s an instructive experience because it reminds you about the power of story and what makes people pick up a book in the first place. But you’ll also quickly learn that a great pitch or query is not necessarily accompanied by a great novel. Or, the skills for one are not the skills for the other. Even a novel with the most amazing concept and premise in the world needs to build compelling, rich characters within that premise.

A great example of character building in a novel with a wild premise is The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden. You can read an excerpt from the novel at Tor.com.

How the Novel Works

The novel is set in a futuristic South Africa, where personal robots called alphies tend to their owners and the government harnesses technological advances to raise the standard of living. We follow six different characters as this world starts to come apart. We’re introduced to one of them, Sidney Mazwai, in this scene. She works at a nail salon, and one of her wealthiest clients has walked in, preparing for a fundraiser for a politician whose family her own has known for centuries.

“Centuries, you say?” Sounds like the perfect opportunity to hear a long and convoluted story about how Mrs. Donovan’s family came to South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War with intentions of raping the country of its precious metals and gems. Not that Sydney needs a refresher history course since she’d actually lived through it nearly two hundred years ago, but it’ll give her a chance to do the thing that’s the other half of getting those fat tips. Sydney grabs a small bottle of organic botanical oils and squeezes a drop onto each cuticle, then she rubs as Mrs. Donovan drones on incessantly about her lineage. Warmth buds inside that empty space right behind Sydney’s navel, and it travels up– prickling like the skitter of centipede legs–through her chest, over her shoulders, and down her arms, and then finally into the pads of her fingertips which glow as subtly as the sun peeking through gray winter clouds. Mrs. Donovan’s nails lengthen, just a few centimeters—enough to notice, but not so much to raise suspicions. Sydney then rubs out all signs of imperfection and hangnails.

By the time she gets to the left hand, Sydney’s stomach is cramping, but it’s nothing a couple of aspirin won’t take care of. When she’s done, she reaches into her alphie’s bottom compartment and pulls out a bottle of clear coat, keeping it palmed safely out of sight. The empty spot inside her grows as she reaches into Mrs. Donovan’s rambling thoughts and pulls out the shade of the dress she’ll be wearing tonight. Sydney clenches her fist, envisions a nice complimentary color, and opens her hand to reveal a feisty shade of mauve.

“Oh, that’s perfect,” Mrs. Donovan says as the first coat goes on. “I swear, Precious, the colors you pick for me are always spot on. Sometimes I think you can read my mind.”

In this scene, we’re introduced to various aspects of Sidney’s life and personality. She’s on the bottom end of a class and colonial divide, she can create a facade that hides the resentment she feels over this divide, she has magical powers, and those powers take a physical toll on her when used.

Now, imagine how else those aspects of her character could have been revealed. We learn, not long after this scene, that Sydney’s powers extend far beyond cuticle manipulation. She is, in fact, the “ancient demigoddess hell-bent on regaining her former status by preying on the blood and sweat (but mostly blood) of every human she encounters” mentioned on the novel’s back cover. But you wouldn’t know that from this passage. Instead of devouring the woman, she does her nails. It’s the opposite of what you’d talk about in a query letter or pitch. But it’s essential to building the novel.

Novels require pacing, whereas pitches do not. A novel must build up to its wildest moments, and the distance between the mundane and the wild also creates mystery: how are the mundane and wild connected in this one character?

It might be tempting to cut out mundane elements of your story, but a novel without quotidian scenes won’t work. The key is to hint at the wild stuff in the middle of the mundane, which is what Drayden does in this nail salon scene.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s hint at the wildest parts of our story, using The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden as a model:

  1. Identify the wild part of your story and locate it in a character. This applies even if your character isn’t magic, like Drayden’s. Every novel has a dramatic scene in which a character acts out of passion and desire. The nature of the act will vary, depending on the novel, but it’s there. It’s probably what led you to write the novel in the first place. So, know what it is and make it something that exists internally in the character. Don’t rely exclusively on external events to drive the action; it will lead to a boring character whose actions feel unconvincing. In other words, what is your character capable of doing?
  2. Give your character a daily grind. Drayden makes Sydney go to work at a nail salon. In many novels, work often supplies this daily grind. So do family, friends, and household chores. Find something that your character does in a thoughtless, mechanical way. In itself, this helps build character because we learn what your character is dissatisfied with. But it also provides a way to surprise the reader, who will sense the character’s boredom with the act and so won’t see the wild part coming.
  3. Build hints of the wild part into the grind. This almost always takes the form of quiet rebellion. Your character pushes back against the grind (and the people who embody it) in ways that help your character (either by giving them the satisfaction of rebellion or, as in Sydney’s case, benefiting them in some tangible way). This rebellion is where you’re really crafting the character. What hints of the character’s wildness are present in that rebellion? How does she conceal it? Both the wildness and the deception will likely become essential to the character and provide building blocks as you move into the more dramatic parts of the novel.

The goal is to build a character and world with an eye toward the sort of dramatic action that might appear in a query letter or pitch.

Good luck.

How to Make and Thwart Plans

11 Jul
Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark's story, "The Disappearance of Things" appeared in The Chattahoochee review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark’s story, “The Disappearance of Things” appeared in The Chattahoochee Review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

In his poem, “To a Mouse,” the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the line—now famous as the source of the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men—”The best-laid plans of mice and men/often go awry.” As a piece of advice for story writers, the line is as helpful today as it was in 1785. We often create a draft of a story or novel that has The Big Thing That Will Happen and The Way The Character Feels About It, but we don’t have any middle. In other words, we have no plot. To solve that problem, we can create plans and then let them go awry.

This is exactly what the writer Mathilde Walter Clark does in her story, “The Disappearance of Things.” Clark is Danish, and the story appeared in translation (by Martin Aitken) in The Chattahoochee Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man whose possessions have begun to disappear: “a screw lid, a left sock.” It soon becomes clear that this isn’t a case of absent-mindedness. His shoes vanish, and the man realizes that his entire worldview is threatened.

That was not the way matter behaved. It could be obstructive, but it was an obstructiveness that came of existing, of having substance and shape. Of possessing hardness and inthewayness. He was under no illusion that he was a knowledgeable man, but the few things he did know were things to which he attached great importance. He knew, for example, that orderly surroundings make an orderly mind. And he knew that shoes don’t just disappear.

And so the premise is set, and we know how the man feels about it. We also know with some certainty that the disappearances will continue and that this will affect the man’s mental state. The question is now one of plot. The story can’t keep moving in the same way as it began: things disappearing, the man feeling confused. Resistance is needed. The man needs to push back. Something needs to happen. But how?

Here is Clark’s solution:

Following the disappearance of the rissole, he had drawn up a detailed list of all his possessions in order to help him navigate in what were habitually new and chaotic surroundings. The list ran initially to one hundred and forty-eight pages of yellow, lineated A4 paper.

The man creates a plan. He’s going to keep his things in a single room and consult his list to make sure all is accounted for. The temptation, now, would be to immediately thwart the plan. But that’s not what Clark does. Instead, she explains the logic behind the plan (“His possessions were ordered according to the following taxonomy”).

Okay, so now it’s time to thwart the plan, right?

Wrong. Instead, Clark adds to the plan:

He had yet to experience things disappearing in front of his eyes, so if he stayed awake long enough he thought he might be able to reduce his losses. He also took a chamber pot into the living room with him, since a number of his things seemed to be taking the opportunity to disappear during his visits to the bathroom.

This is how plot works. The character encounters a problem and comes up with a plan for dealing with it. The plan has a rationale. It’s personal to the character, and as the character thinks about it, she realizes holes in the plan. Perhaps those holes cause small problems, and so she adapts and closes the holes. Things are under control.

And that’s when you make the plan go awry:

It worked fine for a day or two until the lists disappeared.

Not only does the plan get thwarted, but that act—the disappearance of the list—feels personal:

[T]he leaves of yellow A4 were gone, with the exception of the one itemizing
temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region. On the other hand,
the pile containing temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region
was also gone, exactly as if matter had decided to play a very serious practical
joke on him.

The story has created a situation in which the character cannot defeat the problem. But the character himself isn’t defeated. And so the story continues. When all hope is lost, what comes next? That’s where plot must go.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create and thwart plans to create plot, using the “The Disappearance of Things” by Mathilde Walter Clark as a model:

  1. Create a problem to be solved. The type of problem will depend on the type of story. Clark is writing (generally speaking) in the style of Fabulism (think of the writers Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Luce, or the filmmaker Michael Gondry), and so her problem isn’t realistic so much as a supernatural manifestation of some internal problem. The point is this: all genres create problems. Vampires must be killed, bills must be paid, cancer must be faced, and intergalactic nemeses must be defeated. The important thing is to create problems that can be addressed head on. In other words, the character must possess the power to solve the problem (serfs can’t defeat intergalactic villains, at least not on their own).
  2. Create a solution. Simple solutions tend to be better than complex solutions. In Star Wars, the good guys blow up the Death Star—pretty simple. It’s the complications to enacting the simple solution that make it interesting. In “The Disappearance of Things,” Clark has her character make a list of his possessions so that he can track the ones that go missing—again, a simple solution. The solution also fits his character because he’s detail-oriented. So, identify a trait of your character and ask yourself, “What kind of plan would that kind of person invent?”
  3. Give the solution a rationale. In part, this means to explain how it will work (the way a heist movie has its thieves rehearse the heist before actually enacting it). But it also means giving details about why the character knows the plan will work. The reader of the story or novel (or viewer of the heist movie) has suspicions that they’re being set up, but those suspicions need to be balanced out by the solidity of the plan. Readers need to believe that even if one or two things go wrong, the plan as a whole is solid. This is why Clark explains the taxonomy of the man’s possessions. She’s convincing us that the man is mentally fit and together. Even if one or two of his possessions goes missing, he’s still with it. He’ll be fine. Without this paragraph (this rationale for why his solution of creating a list is a good one), the readers will simply believe they’ve been given another plot point to be easily knocked over.
  4. Tweak the planShow your character in a state of reflection. There’s a scene at the end of Don Delillo’s novel White Noise when the novel’s main character, Jack Gladney, is driving to confront a man. As he drives, he repeats his plan to himself. But also, as he drives, he thinks about the plan and adds details to it. Any character, if they bear any semblance to real-life people, will try to anticipate the future and the things that might occur in it. So, let your character anticipate the ways the plan might go wrong or the obstacles it might encounter. Then, give the character room to adapt the plan to these potential problems. In so doing, the plan becomes more solid, more believable.
  5. Thwart the plan. The plan must go wrong. If something goes according to plan, readers will be disappointed. At the very least, the results must be different than expected (the old “Be careful what you wish for” thing). There are two ways that a plan can go wrong: the expected way (that the writer and character have anticipated) and the unexpected way. I don’t mean that a meteor appears from space. I mean that you can use any of the characters or things or trends that you’ve already established and reintroduce them in unexpected ways. Clark does this by returning to the disappearances that set the story in motion. The expected move would be to make things on the list disappear. The unexpected move is to make the list itself disappear. It’s also a move that renders the plan totally unworkable. As a plot point, this is useful because it forces the character into terrain that he could not (or refused to) anticipate. Once the character is in that situation, that’s when the story really takes off and the reader leans in. That’s when we see something we did not expect to see.

Good luck!

How to Improve Narrative Pace on a Paragraph Level

28 Jun
Roxane Gay's story "Contrapasso" first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit.

Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso” first appeared in Artifice Magazine and then in Mixed Fruit. The unique structure highlights the importance of paragraph structure.

When talking about structure in fiction, we tend to focus on large-scale issues (story arc and delayed gratification of suspense) and the fine detail of sentence crafting. What often gets neglected in the conversation is a structural unit that is, in some ways, the skeleton of all fiction: the paragraph.

An excellent example of the beauty and importance of the paragraph is Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso.” It was first published in Artifice Magazine, and you can read it here at Mixed Fruit.

How the Story Works

In any story, a character begins with infinite possibilities, and the writer’s job is to narrow those possibilities down to a few that the character must choose from. Choosing a theme is one way to narrow the possibilities. In this story, the menu headings provide those themes. Of course, it’s not necessary to stick to the theme in a strict sense, and Gay doesn’t, but her headings do provide a direction for each paragraph.

In this paragraph (from the “Life Maine Lobster” entry on the “Meat and Seafood” page), the theme or idea of boiling lobsters provides an entry into the character and her story about bondage. The heading allows her to write a sentence like this: “Now, in the wake of her divorce, she envied the lobster and the privilege of such pain.” The entire character development proceeds from the heading.

Focusing on paragraph structure can also help you move through time. Look at this section from the “Sauteed Spinach” entry on the “Sides and Accompaniments” page. For many writers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of chronology. So, this section could have been written this way: I followed her, I saw this, I did that, she saw me, we exchanged looks, she got out her phone, I went home, and there was a knock on my door late and the words, “Open up. It’s the police.”

But Gay skips all that unnecessary connecting tissue. Here, the theme doesn’t matter as much. Instead, the paragraph headings force each paragraph to have a point: what the narrator saw, what the cops said, what the narrator did next. As a result, the narrative moves more quickly because the reader doesn’t need to slog through needless detail. But the structure also slows the narrative down. Because each paragraph focuses on a single action or event, you can’t rush on to the next event. Instead, you investigate the action more deeply, which can lead to further character development.

In this story, paragraph structure cannot be separated from story structure.

The Writing Exercise

We’ll write two paragraphs, the first concentrating on character development and the second focusing on moving through time.

Paragraph 1 (Character Development)

  1. Make a list of your characters’ interests: hobbies, food preferences, career influences, regional or cultural influences, etc. For example, if the character is an accountant, he might view the world through accounting concepts. Or, if the character is a high school student who loves to read, she might view the world through the titles of novels, like the narrator of Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. Choose one of these interests for your theme.
  2. Write the theme as a paragraph heading.
  3. Let the character apply the theme to his or her world. For example, if your accountant character was asked how the whole world can be explained by common mistakes in basic math on tax returns, what would the character say? What if you let the character give an example from his or her life, something like this: “You’ve got two kinds of taxpayers, X and Y. Just the other day, a guy came into the office, and he was type X…”
  4. Tell the character’s story in a single paragraph. Stick to the theme you’ve given yourself.

Paragraph 2 (Moving Through Time)

  1. Same as Step 1 above. Choose a theme.
  2. Tell a story in 3 sentences: X happened. Then Y. Then Z.
  3. Build a paragraph around each of the three sentences. In each paragraph, focus less on advancing the narrative and more on describing in-depth some aspect of the action, for instance what the character sees or feels or thinks.

The goal is to move beyond what happened and moving characters around to doing the real, essential work of building a prose style and narrative sensibility.

Have fun.

An Interview with Kaitlyn Greenidge

15 Jun
Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, has been called "auspicious," "complex," and "caustically funny."

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, which has been called “auspicious,” “complex,” and “caustically funny.”

Kaitlyn Greenidge was born in Boston and received her MFA from Hunter College. She’s the author of the novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman, and her wer work has appeared in The Believer, American Short Fiction, Guernica, Kweli Journal, The Feminist Wire, Afro Pop Magazine, Green Mountains Review and other places. She is the recipient of fellowships from Lower Manhattan Community Council’s Work-Space Program; Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and other prizes. She currently lives in Brooklyn.

To read an exercise on introducing characters, click here.

In this interview, Greenidge discusses describing characters, acknowledging the role of power in race, and finding an agent who appreciated her novel.

Michael Noll

I love the way you introduce Charlie. A character says that “it’s best we all meet Charlie now,” but the introduction isn’t given to the reader in a direct way. First, we see the place where Charlie lives. Then, we’re told that he’s sitting beside a fern and that a man kneels beside him—and then we’re introduced to the man. Only after this do we get to see Charlie. I love this approach because it takes the weight off his character. It’s as if the novel is saying that Charlie is important, yes, but he’s less important the everything around him. Was this introduction to Charlie simply how it arrived on the page? Or did you write it with a particular goal in mind?

Kaitlyn Greenidge

I didn’t want this novel to be about chimpanzees. That isn’t, to me, what this novel is about or what it is concerned with. So, it was important to let the reader know this from the beginning. Part of it was just keeping the reader’s interest in that first chapter. Part of it was also me, as a writer, not being ready to engage with the character of Charlie yet. All of those things went into that first introduction to the character.

Michael Noll

I also love the description of Dr. Paulson, in particular this:

When she parted her lips to grin, behind her white, white teeth, I caught a glimpse of her tongue. It was the yellowest, craggiest, driest tongue I had ever seen. It surely did not belong in that mouth, in her, and I shot a look at my mother, who widened her eyes, who gave one quick shake of her head that told me to ignore it.

It’s a monstrous trait, that tongue. In an interview with Lambda Literary, you said that you love the grotesque and the mechanics of horror stories, and the tongue certainly seems to fit. It’s also a detail that turns Dr. Paulson into a kind of monster. In that same interview, you talked about writing fully-developed characters, and so I’m curious how a detail like this works in terms of character development. Did you worry that giving characters monstrous characteristics would make them more difficult to develop? Or is the monstrosity part of that complexity? It’s certainly part of what makes the book so compelling.

Kaitlyn Greenidge

That was more a private joke with myself, while I was writing. I had a teacher in school when I was a kid who used to eat chalk. He carried a stick of it in his back pocket and during class, he would bring it out and lick it. His tongue was pebbled and yellow. And, no one ever mentioned it! It was like, is no one else seeing this, how disgusting it is? So, when I was writing, I just wanted to include that detail as a reminder and a joke with some younger part of myself.

I love the grotesque but it’s very rare that I recognize it as initially repulsive. It takes a very specific visual to repulse me. But most things that people find grotesque, I just like to look at and think about.  I think human bodies are just endlessly fascinating and beautiful looking, even when they have yellow, craggy tongues and even when they are licking chalk.

Michael Noll

The characters are put into situations that highlight their blackness and make them objects of fascination and study. For example, Laurel likes to say of her childhood in Maine that she was the only black person in a one-hundred mile radius. The town of the novel is segregated, and the school that the girls attend is mostly white. At the Toneybee Institute, the family is made a literal object of study, and several reviewers have pointed out connections to the Tuskegee Institute. There’s a sense, then, that the Freemans’ weird situation isn’t, actually, so weird. When you began to sketch out the plot of the novel, did you have ideas or themes in mind? Did you, in other words, have something you wanted to say? Or did you invent the premise and plot first and discover what it had to say about the world?

Kaitlyn Greenidge

Kaitlyn Greenidge's highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of an African-American family who moves to a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of an African-American family who moves to a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

I wanted to write about race in post-Civil Rights America. Which is a very big and wide topic. But I wanted to talk about the ways in which we don’t really have a way to describe living race right now, because we are so averse in America to talking about power.

I just read an editorial on Al Jazeera, about how “cultural appropriation” is a meaningless term. It’s an old argument, one that anyone familiar with that debate can recognize. Basically, culture is universal, all cultures borrow from each other, it was 19th century racists who popularized the idea of distinct, cultural productions in the first place so why do we cling to that idea?

All those historical facts are true, but they are missing that question of power. What does it mean that I probably won’t be hired at many places because my hair is in dreadlocks but an upper-middle class white man could wear the same hairstyle to work and be considered a wonderful iconoclast? That is a question of power, that those who go on and on about how it’s all the same never really have an answer for that.

I grew up in the 90s, when so much talk about race was about “diversity”, how everyone everywhere came from a different culture so let’s all flatten it out. The Irish potato famine is the same pain as the Holocaust is the same pain as American slavery so let’s just not talk about any of it. That is ludicrous, of course, and not how memory or history or culture or politics works. But it’s a convenient idea to cling to in order to avoid really talking about all the ways our wounds are different, and how they are serving, or not serving, us well.

It’s similar to that self-serving, smug, and ultimately meaningless phrase “Everyone is racist.” Usually, the unspoken follow-up to that sentence is “so don’t worry about it/don’t try to talk about it.” We have to get to a point where we have another way to talk about racism and white supremacy beyond just calling people out. Calling people and institutions out is a powerful tool, but we also have to get to a point where we can have conversations past naming someone or a practice or an institution as racist. What does it mean to work to change an institution? Knowing that we are all imperfect, that we will never live in a utopia, that there will always be bias, that over 500 years of racist thinking and oppression cannot simply be erased over night? How do we get to a point where we get real gains, and keep them for another generation to build on? One of the heartbreaking things about studying race post-the Civil Rights era is how many things have been lost, even in the last 8 years, how much we’ve lost. It’s terrifying. So how do we begin to keep what we’ve got and what’s working?

Michael Noll

I recently interviewed Daniel Jose Older about his essay, “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing.” He said that he loves books that multitask and that demand multiple things of the reader. So, for example, he’s written Half-Resurrection Blues, an urban fantasy novel about ghosts, monsters, and paranormal detectives, but it’s also a novel that has a lot to say about issues of race. Kiese Laymon’s Long Division does something similar: it contains time travel and an absurdist vocabulary contest, and it’s very much a book about race. In his case, he struggled to find an appreciative editor and publisher for that book. Your book also seems like it’s multi-tasking. Did you ever think, Uh oh, I’m taking on too much? Was it ever suggested to you that the novel contained too many different elements—or elements that seem too different to some readers?

Kaitlyn Greenidge

Never by my agent or my editor. When I sent it out to some agents, that was definitely a response. But Carrie read it and got it immediately. My editor Andra read it and got it as well. That was most important to me: that the people I worked with on it understood that it is a book that is “multi-tasking”, as you put it. That is a natural place for me to read from. My older sister was in college in the early to mid nineties, just in time to be hit with the full bloom of post-modern theory. She brought some of that stuff home to me and tried to talk to me about it. Like, I remember, she rented The Celluloid Closet and Paris is Burning for me when I was in elementary and middle school and we’d watch them together while she babysat me. And so, I grew up reading things for multiple meanings at a really early age—not because I was some genius, but because I was lucky enough to have an older sibling to say, “Hey, you can read things this way.” It was great: like discovering a secret code. It also meant that I could indulge in reading “low” culture books and avoid the classics, because I could always look for (and invent in my imagination) that subtext. I like books that do that and I always wanted to write one.

First published in April 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Introduce a Character with Misdirection

13 Jun
Kaitlyn Greenidge's highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of an African-American family who moves to a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

Kaitlyn Greenidge’s highly anticipated debut novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, tells the story of the Freemans, an African-American family that moves into a research institute to live with a chimpanzee.

The introduction of one of the most famous characters in literature happens without the reader’s knowledge. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway attends a party at Gatsby’s house but nobody’s seen Gatsby. People are trading rumors (“I’ll bet he killed a man”), and so Nick goes searching—into Gatsby’s mansion, into his library—before finding himself outside again, talking to a guy about the army. Someone asks if he’s having a good time, and Nick says, “I haven’t even seen the host.” That’s when the introduction happens: “I’m Gatsby,” the other man says.

This is an important piece of strategy on Fitzgerald’s part because the reader badly wants to see Gatsby. In a way, he’s the entire point of the novel, as the title indicates. But if Fitzgerald had introduced this great character directly, the reader might have been disappointed. No description would have matched the hype. So Fitzgerald snuck him onto the page.

Kaitlyn Greenidge does something similar in her novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman. The novel is named after a character who is surrounded, early on, by intrigue so substantial that any direct description might disappoint. You can read her approach to this problem in the novel’s opening pages.

How the Novel Works

The novel has a bold premise: The Freeman family is moving into a research institute in rural Massachusetts to be part of an experiment. They will live (and raise their daughters) alongside a chimpanzee named Charlie. The novel begins with the Freemans driving to this institute, where they meet some of the staff and then, finally, Charlie. The introduction is prefaced with this line: “Dr. Paulson thinks it’s best we all meet Charlie now.” It’s a dramatic moment, and here’s how Greenidge handles it:

Charlie lived behind a door in the living room. He had a large, oval-shaped space with low ceilings and no windows and no furniture. Instead, there were bundles of pastel-colored blankets heaped up on the scarred wooden floor. Even from where I stood, I could tell the blankets were the scratchy kind, cheap wool. The room was full of plants—house ferns and weak African violets and nodding painted ladies. “They’re here to simulate the natural world,” Dr. Paulson told us, but I thought it was an empty gesture. Charlie had never known any forests and yet Dr. Paulsen assumed some essential part of him pined for them.

Charlie sat beside a fern. A man knelt beside him. “That’s Max, my assistant,” Dr. Paulsen said.

Max was wearing jeans and a red T-shirt, his lab coat balled up on the floor. He was pale, with messy red hair. He was trying to grow a beard, probably just graduated from college a couple years earlier.

Charlie has taken Max’s glasses and is licking them, and Max is trying to distract Charlie so that he can get them back. We watch this “very gentle disagreement” for a bit, until Dr. Paulsen calls Max and he carries over Charlie. Finally, we see Charlie directly. It’s a good description, with strong, specific imagery. But it’s also clear that Charlie is just a chimpanzee—no more, no less—and quickly the novel returns to the other characters and their reactions to Charlie, ending with the narrator’s mother holding him with tears in her eyes.

So, what can we learn from this?

In this novel, as with The Great Gatsby, the title character isn’t actually as important as the supporting cast. The most interesting scenes take place around the title character, with other characters reacting to him. So, the introduction reflects this fact. In both novels, we’re first shown the people around the title character before the character himself.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s introduce a character through misdirection, using We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge as a model:

  1. Bring the reader into a place where the character is present. The key is for the reader to know that in this place, somewhere, is the character. Horror stories do this all the time: somewhere in this spooky place is the monster, we’re just not sure where.
  2. Give the reader a reason to want to meet the character. Both Fitzgerald and Greenidge do this by putting the character in the title and making them the ostensible reason for the story to exist. Without rich, mysterious Gatsby living next door, there’s no novel. Without Charlie, there’s no experiment. So, give your reader a sense for what role this character will play in your story.
  3. Introduce the character through place. We see Charlie’s home behind the door before we see Charlie. The home is filled with details (the lack of windows, the blankets, the plants) that tell us a lot—not so much about Charlie but about the people around him at the institute. So, think about the place where your character is found. If people entered that place for the first time, eager to meet the character, what details would they notice? What would they discern from them?
  4. Introduce the character through other characters. Charlie is named, but we don’t see him. Instead, we’re shown Max. As with the details about place, the details about Max and how he interacts with Charlie reveal a lot about him. So, show the character interacting with someone else and then focus on that someone else. Again, what details would people notice, and what would they think about them?
  5. Finally, show the character. The details should be specific. Greenidge mentions Charlie’s smell, “old and sharp, like a bottle of witch hazel.”
  6. Return to the other characters or the place. Remember what is important. In Greenidge’s case, the real focus is the effect that Charlie has on the Freemans. With Fitzgerald, the focus is the effect that Gatsby has one everyone else. Show enough of the main character and then return to the effect that he or she has.

The goal is to introduce a character by revealing the world and characters around him or her.

Good luck.

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