Tag Archives: character description

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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An Interview with Tristan Ahtone

12 Aug
Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound busses across America and wrote about it in a series for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound busses across America and wrote about it in the series, America by Bus, for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone is an award-winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Born in Arizona, raised across the United States, and educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Columbia School of Journalism, he has worked as a door-to-door salesman, delivery driver, telemarketer, and busboy. Since 2008, Ahtone has reported for The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, National Native News, Frontline, Wyoming Public Radio, Vice, the Fronteras Desk, NPR, and Al Jazeera America. He serves as Treasurer for the Native American Journalists Association and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

To read an exercise about writing character descriptions based on Ahtone’s essay on riding Greyhound busses across America, click here.

In this interview, Ahtone discusses the role of human and technical limitations on writing and choosing what makes the cut in a piece of journalism.

Michael Noll

It seems like something you’re trying to convey in these pieces is the fleeting nature of encounters on a bus. So, for example, your description of Russell Hall focuses on only a few seconds of observation: Hall on the phone, a glance given to him by a woman sitting nearby, a look that he gives to something he set out the window, the condition of the Bible he’s holding. Was it tempting to try to make more of this encounter? Or was the opposite true: was the challenge instead trying to build a vignette out of only a few details?

Tristan Ahtone

Each encounter we had during this story could have been expanded to a feature-length story. The challenge was having so much detail and condensing it into a vignette. However, in Mr. Hall’s case, the simple nature of his story stemmed from a technical error, embarrassingly enough: the recorder we used to interview our subjects decided to become uncooperative, so there were no accurate quotes save for what I caught in my notes when first observing him. It would have been great to get his backstory in—he worked for the Los Angeles public school system as a truancy officer and had been involved in the church for years traveling the country by bus—but when I sat down to write about him, I found that the brief encounter offered more with less dialogue. So in short, Mr. Hall’s story functions as a fleeting encounter but its creation stems from a technical problem and having to make due with good note taking to replace missing quotes.

Michael Noll

I love the dialogue that you capture. In the piece about Hu Li, the dialogue isn’t really conversation so much as different people talking at the same time. You must have overheard or participated in so many conversations. How did you decide which ones to write up?

Tristan Ahtone

There are about half a dozen interviews we did that never made it to the final product and many never even made draft form. In each case my partner Tomo Muscionico and I would strike up conversations with people, feel out whether we wanted to continue the conversation for a story, and eventually asked to mic them up so we could record that interview. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. In the end, a lot of people we took photos of and interviewed didn’t make it in usually because their narrative wasn’t as strong when putting it in short form. For instance, there was a woman named Dianne Whitlock, who showed up briefly in Rosalinda’s vignette – she had a wonderful story and had a great conversation with another gentlemen that had his own vignette that was also eventually cut. The primary reason was because in short form, we couldn’t do them justice. Essentially, we gathered as much material as we could, and when we sat down to write and edit it, a lot of people washed out.

Michael Noll

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound buses around America and wrote about it for Al Jazeera America.

In his essay on riding Greyhound busses, Tristan Ahtone met a woman named Rosalinda who was traveling from Guatemala to Florida and who spoke neither English nor Spanish.

In the piece about Rosalinda, you write, “She and her baby had matching yellow wristbands, the kind one gets in a hospital or a prison.” This description has two parts: the detail (matching yellow wristbands) and the interpretation (the kind one gets…). How much of your task as a journalist, as a writer, is helping the readers understand the details you show them?

Tristan Ahtone

I’d say most of my job is helping readers understand details. Context is what makes people’s stories real and relevant. One of the nice thing about long-form journalism is that you have the opportunity to see and write about details like that and offer them to the audience. We spent a long time with Rosalinda and ran into her twice: once at the Phoenix bus station and again on a bus we boarded in El Paso. I think I can speak for my partner, Tomo, that we’re not the superstitious types, but we knew we had to write her story when we ran into her again. We had to do something. She was too special and too important to let drive off without trying. That meant we had to get really creative, though: we couldn’t talk to her, nobody could really, so we had to take a lot of pictures and extensive notes so that we could make her a real person to our audience, and that meant keeping an eye to detail and interpreting who she was, where she was going, and what her situation was based on physical information that was available.

Michael Noll

In that same passage about Rosalinda, you have the problem of not being able to communicate with her. So, you approach the description through the other passengers’ eyes and knowledge about her. As a result, the passage becomes not just about Rosalinda but also everyone else on the bus, the community they form. Was that approach a matter of simply using the information available, or had you sketched out a variety of approaches to these passages before the trip?

Tristan Ahtone

The only thing we had sketched out prior to going on the trip is where we would leave from and where we would end up and even that changed mid-way through. Originally, I wanted Rosalinda’s story to be weaved in throughout the entire piece with other passengers narratives. The original structure I sketched out more closely resembled a Robert Altman film with a number of different characters all overlapping at various places. I couldn’t get it to work though, one reason being that while we have rich detail on everyone we spoke with, there wasn’t enough information to support a story that long. It also felt confusing, so we scrapped it. One of the only variations of that idea that remains in the final piece is the interaction between Lonnie Head and Christopher Nyman in Nashville. Had we stuck with the original structure, you likely would have seen a lot more interactions like that between a lot of the people we met. As I mentioned before, Dianne Whitlock makes an appearance in Rosalinda’s vignette: originally she had her own story, which is part of the reason she’s even named at all in this one instead of just identified as another passenger. In the end I really liked how Rosalinda’s story came to embody a greater sense of community. I think that people deride and criticize people who ride busses, but I have to say, I’ve never seen people on a plane act so kindly to each other. In Rosalinda’s case, we observed how people behaved toward her and reported it. If she had been treated poorly, we would have written it that way instead.

Originally posted in January 2016

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

How to Describe a Character from the Perspective of Others

9 Aug
Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound buses around America and wrote about it for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound buses around America and wrote about it for Al Jazeera America‘s project, “The United States of Bus Travel.” Photo credit: Tomas Muscionico, Al Jazeera America

The easiest and most common way to describe a character is directly, like this: She’s tall and loves Adele but believes people who sing along with the music are disrespecting the artist. The first part of that description (she’s tall) can be deduced from observation, and perhaps the second part (loves Adele) can be as well if the music is audible. But the final part (disrespecting the artist) requires knowing her thoughts, which means that she speaks them aloud. For most characters, this isn’t a big deal. But what about characters who can’t or won’t speak?

A good example of using every  available resource to describe a character can be found in a recent series, “The United States of Bus Travel,” from Al Jazeera America. Journalist Tristan Ahtone traveled the United States by Greyhound bus and wrote short vignettes about the people he encountered. You can read the entire project here.

How the Essay Works

The final part of the series, “The Mother,” is about a passenger named Rosalinda who spoke no English. (You can find it by scrolling all the way to the bottom of the page.) Normally Ahtone’s approach was to strike up a conversation, but, in this case, that wasn’t possible because Rosalinda didn’t speak English. Watch how Ahtone builds that inability to communicate into the first part of the description:

Rosalinda had all her possessions in two bags: a trash bag and a giant resealable storage bag with the Homeland Security logo on it. She and her baby had matching yellow wristbands, the kind one gets in a hospital or a prison. She spoke no English and only a touch of Spanish and, from what passengers could gather, had taken a bus from Guatemala to Arizona 13 days before and was now bound for Florida.

Notice how Ahtone starts with what can be observed: what Rosalinda carries with her and the wristbands she shares with her baby. At that point, he’s run out of what can be learned directly, and so he finds a way to learn information indirectly: “from what passengers could gather.” In short, Ahtone is using the impressions and knowledge of the people around Rosalinda as a source of information rather than Rosalinda herself.

The rest of the vignette becomes as much about those people around her as about Rosalinda herself. Here’s the bus driver:

“She’s probably Central American or something,” said the bus driver. “I think she’s going all the way to Miami. That happens all the time on this schedule. We get a lot of Central Americans probably getting sent from one detention area to another, and they’re being processed.”

Through this quote, we learn something about the route and the people who tend to travel it.

Here’s another passenger on the bus:

“I want to get her something to eat when we stop, but I don’t know how to communicate with her,” said Dianne Whitlock as Rosalinda’s baby cried. “She’s not eating.”

And here is how the passage ends:

At the next stop, passengers in her section pooled their resources for water, soda, chips, diapers, baby food and a cheeseburger with a side of fries.

By looking beyond Rosalinda for information about her, the writer has also opened up the vignette to the world around the person he is ostensibly focused on. We learn about her, but we also learn about the kind of route she’s on and the way that a temporary community develops on the bus. All of this is built from statements made about Rosalinda by the other people on the bus.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s describe a character from the perspective of others, using “The United States of Bus Travel” by Tristan Ahtone as a model:

  1. Describe the character using what can be observed. Ahtone describes what Rosalinda is carrying with her and one notable part of her wardrobe: the matching yellow wristbands. The key is to choose details that convey something about the character. It’s actually a good exercise to pretend that you’re viewing your character while riding on a bus. In that situation, it’s natural to draw conclusions about people from what they’re wearing or carrying or from their posture or behavior. So, choose one or two basic details that allow the reader to infer some basic aspects of the character’s life, background, or situation.
  2. State the impediment to knowing more about the character. In Ahtone’s case, he didn’t speak Rosalinda’s language. But language isn’t the only possible impediment. Perhaps a character doesn’t want to talk or cannot talk due to a physical cause or due to the situation (no one or someone isn’t allowed to speak). There are many situations that we encounter where speaking openly or at all isn’t possible or socially acceptable (like on an elevator). Don’t be coy. State clearly the reason the characters cannot talk.
  3. Look for other sources of information. The most obvious, of course, are other people, but in the absence of people, you can study the character’s relationship to her possessions or surroundings. (Think of the Sherlock Holmes line about watching what a woman first rescues from a burning home.) If other people are present, consider the difference in their perspective compared to your own (or your narrator’s). For example, on Ahtone’s bus trip, the other passengers had been riding the bus with Rosalinda for a while, and in that time, they’d observed her acting or not acting in ways that stood out to them. They’d likely tried to talk to her in Spanish and failed at that. Like Ahtone, you can use these different perspectives and levels of knowledge/experience to convey information that is not directly accessible to you or your narrator. What do other people think or see or notice or say?
  4. Look to the setting for information. Ahtone gets a crucial piece of information from the driver, who has seen many passengers like Rosalinda. So, think of your character as being part of a trend or demographic. We draw conclusions about others based on age, gender, dress, race, ethnicity, language, etc, all of the time. What conclusions can/would your characters draw based on their own experience and the setting where the story occurs?
  5. Consider how the other perspectives interact. On the bus, the other passengers worry about Rosalinda and eventually pool their money to buy her food and diapers. Of course, the other perspectives don’t need to react positively. We’re all coming out of the holidays, and so we’ve perhaps been reminded that not all personalities gel or work well together. If a character has drawn many people’s interest, how does that shared interest cause them to behave?

The goal is not only learn about a character who cannot or will not speak but also to learn about the surrounding characters and world.

Good luck.

How to Avoid the Mirror in Character Descriptions

26 Apr
Kelli Jo Ford's story, "You Will Miss Me When I Burn," was published in Virginia Quarterly Review.

Kelli Jo Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn,” was published in Virginia Quarterly Review.

We’ve all written this type of character description: the character walks past a mirror, stops, and examines the face and person it reveals. It’s a simple strategy that allows the story to tell the reader, “Here is what this person looks like.” The problem is that it’s overused. People really do look in mirrors, of course, and sometimes it’s necessary in fiction. I’m not suggesting that mirrors should never appear in our writing. But they shouldn’t be used as a crutch. There are other ways to describe characters, and some of them can feel so active that we don’t even realize a description has occurred.

An excellent example of an active character description can be found in Kelli Jo Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn,” published in Virginia Quarterly Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a North Texas rancher whose home lies in the potential path of a wildfire. He has a fatalistic attitude toward this disaster and drives to his son’s house, not with the intention to try to save the place but to help his horse. Here is the beginning of the scene. Pay attention to how the characters are described:

At my boy, Pitch’s, house, I clamped my hat down on my head and intended on walking straight to the door but ended up going around his truck because that’s where the wind blew me. I banged on the front door once and pushed it open. “Fat Mare needs shoeing, Pitch,” I yelled, going on in. I knew him and that wife of his would be sleeping because they work the night shift at the factory down the road. I called for him again, and he came out of the bedroom, pulling a long-handle shirt over his head and stomping his foot down into his boot.

“You’ll break the back of your boot like that,” I said, but you can’t tell that boy nothing. I tossed him a sausage biscuit I brought, and he grabbed a Dr Pepper from the fridge, opened it up, and took three long swallows without coming up for air. With his head tilted back like that, I could see where my boy was losing the hair on his head, and I felt proud to have a full head of my own, proud I didn’t work indoors under fake lighting on another man’s schedule. But it got me antsy.

We learn a great deal about the narrator and his son, even though the passage mostly contains action rather than an extended statement of what the characters look like. Here’s how it works:

  • The narrator enters the scene with resistance to his arrival. The wind literally blows him off his path, but he keeps going. This doesn’t mean that you need a stiff wind blowing throughout every scene of your work, but it is useful to create some sort of friction. After all, would The Lord of the Rings still feel as tense if Boromir’s line was, “Yes, one simply walks into Mordor”?
  • The narrator has a plan. He wants his horse shoed, and this is why he doesn’t bother with niceties when he walks in the door. Because he knows what he wants, he can pursue it immediately and directly: “I banged on the front door once and pushed it open. “Fat Mare needs shoeing, Pitch,” I yelled, going on in.”
  • The narrator acts based on particular knowledge, which lets him predict certain aspects of the scene he’s entering: “I knew him and that wife of his would be sleeping.”
  • When the second character appears, there’s no dilly-dally, only his first relevant act: “he came out of the bedroom, pulling a long-handle shirt over his head and stomping his foot down into his boot.”
  • The narrator comments on this action, and his comments reveal two things: his son doesn’t know how to put on a boot, and the narrator does; the narrator is willing to call him out on it, but his son doesn’t care.
  • Some basic mechanics (eating, drinking) are handled quickly and efficiently, boiled down to a single detail that captures something essential about the characters’ personalities: “I tossed him a sausage biscuit I brought, and he grabbed a Dr Pepper from the fridge, opened it up, and took three long swallows without coming up for air.”
  • We’re finally given a physical description (the son is going bald), and it’s delivered in a kind of looking-in-the-mirror moment. What makes it work is how quickly the description gives way to something else: the narrator’s attitude about what he sees (“I felt proud to have a full head of my own”).
  • The passage ends with a bridge to the next thing: “it got me antsy.” This is important. All prose is, generally, about propelling the reader into the next sentence, paragraph, scene, and page. You want to avoid endings (even the end of a paragraph is an ending) that do not suggest something further.

The result is a descriptive passage that feels active and pushes the reader into wondering what will happen next.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write an active descriptive passage, using “You Will Miss Me When I Burn” by Kelli Jo Ford as a model:

  1. Create resistance to your character’s entry to a scene. Ford uses wind (which is important given the fire that looms on the horizon), but you can use anything at your disposal: some physical object or piece of geography or the knowledge of what is to come, which might lead to dread or fear or worry.
  2. Give the character a plan. If you find yourself writing a scene where characters simply wander aimlessly, beware. It can be done, of course, but it’s risky to write scenes hoping something will happen. Let the character’s entry to the scene be the precipitating action. What does your character intend to accomplish?
  3. Give the character knowledge and the ability to predict the future. The character ought to know something about the scene she’s entering. In the absence of knowledge, create suspicion. After all, lack of knowledge never stopped anyone from guessing, even wildly inaccurately.
  4. Let the second character enter with a bang. Lead with an action that sums up that character, the sort of thing that might cause others to say, “Well, of course he did.”
  5. Let the first character comment on this action. It should bug the character, or the character should find fault with it—or appreciate it mightily. In short, make the action positive or negative, something that causes a reaction. Neutral is bad for narrative.
  6. Boil mechanics down to essential elements. If a character moves, speaks, eats, drinks, or does anything else, don’t try to capture the entire movement. Instead, choose one part of it that reveals something about the character. Imagine that the scene takes place in the dark—and then a camera flashes. What does the sudden light reveal?
  7. Transition quickly from description to attitude. If a character observes something, make the observation prompt a reaction, one with attitude (good or bad, it doesn’t matter). For bonus points, turn the observation inward. The best characters tend to be self-centered, and so everything they see prompts them to think about themselves.
  8. End on a positive or negative note. Tilt the deck so that the marbles you’ve placed on it roll one direction or another.

The goal is to convey basic information about characters in a way that seems active and compelling.

Good luck.

How to Build Character within Action Scenes

12 Apr
Manuel Gonzales' novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is the much-anticipated follow-up to his terrific story collection, The Miniature Wife.

Manuel Gonzales’ novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is the much-anticipated follow-up to his terrific story collection, The Miniature Wife.

The most boring prose is often supposed to be the most exciting: action scenes. No matter how exquisitely detailed and choreographed a scene’s punches, kicks, shouts, commands, charges, and retreats, the reader can bear only so much. After more than a few sentences—or perhaps a paragraph or two at most—it simply washes over us, unseen. Our eyes glaze over. So, good writers will mix something into their action sequences, and usually that something builds character.

One of the best at this strategy is Manuel Gonzales, who does it again and again in his weird and wonderful new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!. You can read first pages of the book here

How the Novel Works

Action scenes can be some of the most difficult moments to write because the action draws the eye. Once someone is fighting or running or whatever, it’s hard to look away. But that is exactly what action sequences need. They must offer more than choreographed motion. Watch how Gonzales avoid that trap in this early scene from the novel. In it, the leader of one group has just given the sign to begin an attack on the headquarters of another group:

Finally she gave that signal and the fucking mercs were off, pouring out of their vans like mechanized roaches, and then they were gone, and Colleen, jog-walking right behind the mercs as they charged into the offices of the Morrison World Travel Concern, patted Rose on her ass and gave her a peck on the cheek and told her, “Nice work, kid,” and then waved casually over her shoulder and called out, “See you on the other side,” as she ran to catch up with the grunts, leaving Rose standing on the sidewalk feeling like she felt that one summer she agreed to help out with the pre-K kids at church camp, how relieved she’d felt every fucking day when it was recess and all those little shits had run screaming and hitting and shoving out of the multipurpose room and into the play yard and all she’d wanted to do was sit down and revel in the peace and quiet for one goddamn minute.

The passage begins with a series of actions but ends with the memory of a pre-K kids church camp. It’s a significant jump. What makes it work? The less-polished version of this jump, which most of us have written, is this: action action action, which made her think about that time… It’s the same thing that Gonzales has written, with one big exception: it includes the phrase “which made her think.” Other versions of this include “which reminded her” and “which transported her” and “which made her feel.”  The difference between these and what Gonzales writes is that his version is faster (“feeling like she felt that one summer…”) and doesn’t necessarily imply that the character herself is stopping in the middle of a battle to think, “Oh, this is just like that one time at church camp.”

We tend to value realism, but in action scenes, verisimilitude can get in the way. If a writer tries too hard to recreate action as it’s experienced by a character, the result isn’t automatically good prose. Would this character think about church camp in this moment? Maybe not. But she has a feeling, and the writer is pausing to tell us, the readers, what that feeling is—a feeling that the character perhaps understands without thinking about it.

Gonzales steps out of the immediate action with another strategy as well. This passage comes shortly after the first one:

Rose dropped twenty or thirty feet and then caught hold of the rope, threw her feet against the aluminum of the vent shaft, leaving deep boot marks in it, almost breaking the shaft off its column. She should have been wearing gloves. She hated wearing gloves, though, hated the way they constricted her hands, the way she couldn’t grip things as well as she liked…

Again, the passage starts with action and then moves out of it into a short meditation on gloves. Is the character actually thinking about gloves in this moment? Sort of, as you’ll see when you continue reading the scene. But she’s not thinking, “I hate gloves, the way they constrict my hands.” Why would she? She understands this hatred and doesn’t need to state it explicitly, even to herself. The moment is meant for the readers alone, an attempt to reveal something about the character based on what she’s doing at that moment: hanging on a rope without gloves.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create space to build character within an action sequence, using The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales as a model:

  1. Choose an action sequence. It can be anything from attacking a building to preparing dinner. Your characters are doing something.
  2. Write the basic action as a list. Gonzales actually puts his action in the first example into a single sentence. Try doing the same thing. You can always add more detail later. Get the essential parts of the movement: where it takes place, who is involved, and which objects are used.
  3. Step away from the action (Method 1). Make a comparison. Gonzales does it with the word feeling. The way his character feels in the midst of this action is like the way she felt in this other, very different moment. To do this, you can drop the word feeling into almost any point in the list of actions, like this: She spread peanut butter on the slice of bread, feeling like she felt that one…. Or, don’t use feeling at all. The action itself, not the way it feels but the actual movement, can be similar to something else, like this: She spread peanut butter on the slice of bread the way masons apply mortar to bricks. 
  4. Move into the comparison. Gonzales moves his character out of the attack and into church camp. In my examples, the character could move into whatever spreading peanut butter feels like or into her past as a bricklayer. You’ve opened the door into someplace other than the present moment; now walk through it.
  5. Step away from the action (Method 2). Select one of the objects you mentioned in the list of actions. Comment on it. Gonzales does this through absence: no gloves. Then he tells the reader something about the character’s relationship to that object (or its absence). Try doing the same thing. Make a statement about your character’s relationship to an object in the scene. Then, as with the previous method, step through the door you’ve opened. What else is connected to that object or the character’s experience of it?
  6. Return to the action. Once you’ve shown or told us what you wanted to show or tell, walk back through the door and into the present moment. The action resumes.

The goal is to create simultaneity in action scenes by adding other moments, times, and experiences to the present moment of action.

Good luck.

How to Introduce a Character with Misdirection

5 Apr
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 add 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.

How to Manipulate Chronology to Build Character

15 Mar
Chinelo Okparanta's novel Under the Udala Trees tells the story of a young girl displaced by the Nigerian Civil War and the love affair that she begins.

Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees tells the story of a young girl displaced by the Nigerian Civil War and the love affair that she begins.

Chronology is something most writers and readers take for granted. Time moves forward, and so does narrative. There are exceptions, of course. Memory isn’t constrained by the inexorable march of time. It can leap backward at will, or against it—and can even get stuck in the past. But we understand memory to be unusual, unlike the rest of our lives, which move forward. This fact highlights the extraordinary achievement of fictions that move differently. Charles Baxter’s novel First Light, for example, starts at the end and moves toward the beginning. And Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine takes place completely within the time required to ride an escalator. Most writers will never attempt such ambitious structures. But it can be useful to try them in miniature.

An  example of this kind of chronological experiment can be found in Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

Then novel is set in Nigeria during its civil war in the late 1960s. It begins with a Star Wars-like summary:

But in 1967, the war barged in and installed itself all over the place. By 1968, the whole of Ojoto had begun pulsing with the ruckus of armored cars and shelling machines, bomber planes and their loud engines sending shock waves through our ears.

By 1968, our men had begun slinging guns across their shoulders and carrying axes and machetes, blades glistening in the sun; and out on the streets, every hour or two in the afternoons and evenings, their chanting could be heard, loud voices pouring out like libations from their mouths: “Biafra, win the war!”

It was that same year, 1968 — the second year of the war — that Mama sent me off.

If this was Star Wars, the story would proceed from that moment—the narrator’s mother sending her away. The novel would zoom in on the narrator leaving her home, and a scene would begin. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the novel reverses its chronology:

There is no way to tell the story of what happened with Amina without first telling the story of Mama’s sending me off. Likewise, there is no way to tell the story of Mama’s sending me off without also telling of Papa’s refusal to go to the bunker.

Then, the passage reverses what it’s just done:

Without his refusal, the sending away might never have occurred, and if the sending away had not occurred, then I might never have met Amina.

Finally, we learn why this zig-zag in chronology matters:

If I had not met Amina, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.

At this point, the novel really begins—but it does so before the mother sends the narrator away:

So, the story begins even before the story, on June 23, 1968. Ubosi chi ji ehihe jie: the day night fell in the afternoon, as the saying goes. Or as Mama sometimes puts it, the day that night overtook day: the day that Papa took his leave from us.

The novel eventually returns to the moment when the narrator’s mother sends her away, but it takes about 40 pages. So what does this brief reversal of chronology achieve?

There are probably two answers. First, it lets the novel convey some essential information (when, where, what). That information is interesting (war stories have and always will hold our attention), but it’s also general, and as a result it could be a difficult place to begin building an idiosyncratic character. Writing about wars and other societal conflicts can be a bit like wheeling a sofa sleeper down a set of stairs with a hand truck—there’s considerable risk of getting rolled over and flattened. So, rather than beginning the novel with a character who is a kind of refugee (a status that can have a flattening effect), the novel goes back in time to a point when she was simply a character, creating space to give her and the rest of her family a set of developed, complex personalities.

The war is coming, of course, and the narrator will be sent away, but when she is, we’ll have a better appreciation for what it means.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s jump back in time, using Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta as a model:

  1. Decide what information a reader requires to begin the story. This is usually some version of Who, When, Where, and What: the basic elements of setting and situation. Star Wars famously summed up this information at the beginning of each film in the series. Most novels do something similar: showing the place in general (country, state, city, geography) and in particular (this street, house, room). It’s a bit like the wide-panning shots at the start of many films. Write a simple passage that conveys this information, especially the big What. For Okparanta, it’s the war. What is the big conflict (divorce, death, moving) at the heart of your story?
  2. Step the reader back in time. Okparanta does this methodically: “There is no way to tell the story of what happened with ____(1) without first telling the story of _____(2)” and “Likewise, there is no way to tell the story of ____(2) without also telling of ____(3).” The first blank is something that will happen eventually in the story. The next blanks are all points that lead up to that first one. Try using these phrases to step your story back in time from its eventual end point.
  3. Explain why these points matter. Okparanta’s narrator says a version of this: “If ___ hadn’t happened, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.” You can use this construction to start with. Make it clear that the story hinges upon a particular moment.
  4. Start the story. Again, here’s Okparanta’s narrator: “So, the story begins even before the story, on ____.” She zooms in on a particular moment, a good moment to begin showing and developing the characters. We know where everything is headed, and so the story can take its time (to some extent) in making us care about the people involved. Find a moment for your story to do this, a moment with the big conflict in the background but without the extreme urgency of points further into the story, a moment when the characters can be themselves and not pawns in a conflict.

The goal is to present essential information about setting and situation and also carve out space to create and develop character.

Good luck.

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