Tag Archives: character description

How to Give Characters a Frame of Reference

19 Jan
Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart's graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live in her absence.

Rosalie Lightning is cartoonist Tom Hart’s graphic memoir about the death of his infant daughter Rosalie and the struggle to understand how to live on in her absence.

When people face tragedy, they rely upon the philosophical framework they’ve built their entire lives. You can hear this framework in the stories they tell, the rituals they follow, and the words of wisdom they recall. Our characters should be no different, yet it’s easy to think only in terms of the questions a character must grapple with in the aftermath of something life-changing: where to live, who to be with, how to cope with what they’re feeling. But all of these questions are answered within a frame of reference. Characters, like us, do not invent every feeling and bit of knowledge or instinct from scratch. Instead, they build their experience of the world hand-in-hand with the books, art, religions, and stories that exist around them.

An excellent—and heartbreakingly beautiful—example of this essential human practice can be found in Tom Hart’s new graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning. When his daughter was almost two years old, she died without warning in her sleep. This book is the story of what happened afterward. You can read the first two chapters of the book at Hart’s website.

How the Memoir Works

Throughout the book, Hart show the reader key moments from his daughter’s life and death, his and his wife’s grief, and their attempts to know how to live without their daughter. Many of these moments are associated with art: a book that Hart read to his daughter and films, songs, and poems that have meant something to him—consciously or not. Anyone who has experienced intense grief understands this kind of association, the way, for example, that a song can gain meaning when it’s heard at a particular time or during a particular moment.

The challenge in a book is to make the reader understand and feel these associations. A good place to start is the beginning. Make the art, religion, or words of wisdom part of the character’s frame of reference before the story really begins. In Rosalie Lightning, Hart makes the frame of reference literally the first thing we encounter.

(Note: I’m going to quote the book, but because it’s a graphic memoir, it’s best understood in its complete form. You can find the opening pages of the book at Hart’s website and at Amazon.)

Here is how the book begins:

Her favorite image

In a single night the oak tree grows to full height from a scattering of acorns in the garden.

In the next frame, we see a house with oak trees and learn the source of this magical image:

A scene from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro

What follows is a series of images of Hart’s daughter Rosalie picking up acorns and calling them “dideo atune” or “Totoro acorn” and also her death and its aftermath. Hart quotes his wife Leela saying, “My heart is a blast sight.”

This introduction is important because it presents both the tragedy and the mental framework that it enters. As Hart and his wife try to make sense of their loss, they fall back on that framework. Hart clearly shows us their attempts to make sense. For example, there is this scene early in the book:

I look for help in art and images. Wondering what makes them work. Wondering what’s going on in my brain…

I read Roland Barthes

“The relation between thing signified and imagine signifying an analogical representation is not ‘arbitrary’ as it is in language…”

He is writing about an ad for Italian spaghetti.

What it signifies, what it semiotizes, and how the layers of semiconscious signations and intents correlate with the

Forget it—I pick up the vault of horror

Obviously, Roland Barthes is not to everyone’s reading taste. What matters is that Barthes matters to Hart and that Hart looks to Barthes’ words to help understand his grief. In Barthes matters to the story because his words fail. Hart eventually turns away from them. In some ways, the book repeats this sequence: Hart seeks out a book, film, poem, or song, and he finds something helps or he doesn’t. Sometimes the art arrives in his life unexpectedly—arrivals that are possible only because the memoir has created space for them.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s give a character a frame of reference, using Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart as a model:

  1. Give the character a general frame. In short, what kind of person is your character, generally? Hart reads Roland Barthes and the poet Ben Lerner (who is quoted in an epigraph to the book), watches films by Miyazaki and Kurosawa, and reads the work of cartoonists and graphic novelists. He’s not watching Transformers or reading Tuesdays with Morrie (at least not in the book). Make a list of the sort of books and films your character prefers. If the character is religious, what texts does she turn to? Be specific. If the character is a Christian, don’t say she turns to the Bible. Identify the books in the Bible or passages that she recalls. What stories does the character like to tell? Does she tend toward patriotic myth, like the story of George Washington and the apple tree? Toward the mystical, like the various stories that pop up on Facebook about people holding hands and praying around a lake and, in so doing, altering the chemical structure of the water molecules?
  2. Figure out why the character turns to the frame of reference. In Hart’s case, his daughter died, and he was trying to make sense of the personal devastation that remained. Tragedy often forces people to question the meaning and essence of things, and so they turn toward prayer or art. But a story doesn’t need tragedy to do this. Case in point: whoever won the Powerball last week has experienced something good and life-changing. That person will almost certainly fall back on their frame of reference in order to understand how to be rich and what to do with the money. Anything that significantly alters or redirects a character’s life will likely force them to develop a new or revised or refreshed understanding of the world and situation they find themselves in.
  3. Find the applicable parts of the frame of reference. Hart no doubt watches many films and reads many books, but in the wake of his daughter’s death, it was particular films and books that he recalled and sought out. Return to the general frame of reference that you created. Which parts apply to your character’s situation? Some parts may be easy to identify. For example, certain Bible passages are read at funerals and weddings over and over again. Other parts may be idiosyncratic. Not many people might think of Roland Barthes when grieving, but Hart did, and that fact reveals something particular about him. So, find the particular films, books, stories, passages, and words of wisdom that your character would turn to.
  4. Introduce the frame before the story. In Rosalie Lightning, we see acorns and Miyazaki before we’re introduced to Rosalie’s death. Consider when/how your character might think about or talk about the film or book. When would she talk about it? Often there are objects that, when seen or encountered, prompt us to think about certain things. Or when someone we know has experienced a particular situation, we tend to tell the same stories as comfort. Try putting your character in one of those situations before introducing the major conflict. Don’t worry about the situation’s proximity in time to the conflict. Prose, unlike film, has all time and memory at its disposal. Hart begins with acorns. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald began with this sentence: “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” That’s the frame of reference that Nick Carraway carries with him when he meets Gatsby. It’s important to begin with the frame because if it appears only after the conflict, it can seem artificial, like something introduced to induce some emotional response in the reader. If it’s introduced before the conflict, then it seems simply like part of the character.

The goal is to give a character the chance to make sense of the world, and that sense-making cannot happen in a vacuum. The character needs some frame of reference, which is what you’re providing.

Good luck.

How to Add Physical Description to Dialogue

12 Jan
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow wrote a lengthy feature on Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, one of the survivor's of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eli Saslow wrote a feature for The Washington Post, “A Survivor’s Life,” on Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, one of the survivor’s of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.

A key difference between beginning and experienced writers is the ability to handle the attributions and descriptions within dialogue. As we improve our craft, we work from “he said with glittering eyes” to “he guffawed” to “he said” to “he said, looking hard at her” to, finally, something better. Well-written dialogue uses carefully chosen physical details to push forward or expand the dramatic moment and the reader’s understanding of it.

An excellent example of this skill (and, frankly, an excellent example of pretty much every type of good writing) is “A Survivor’s Life,” Eli Saslow’s recent article about a 16-year-old girl who survived the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon. It was published in The Washington Post, where you can read it now.

How the Article Works

The article focuses on the relationship between the survivor, Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, and her mother and primary caregiver, Bonnie Schaan. In the opening paragraphs, Bonnie needs to run to the store to buy juice and ice, the first time she’s left her daughter alone since the shooting. Here is part of the dialogue from that scene:

“Do you want me to call someone to come sit with you?” Bonnie asked.

“No. Jesus. I can take care of myself.”

“Blinds opened or closed?”

“Damn it, Mom. Just go!”

Bonnie grabbed her coat and opened the door. She could see the market across the street.

“You’ll be okay?” she asked, but Cheyeanne didn’t answer.

This dialogue is effective for several reasons. First, attribution (identifying the speaker) is used only when necessary. Second, the attributions are kept simple: no screaming or whispering or begging, just “she asked.” Finally, physical details that we’re shown serve a clear purpose. Bonnie grabs her coat and sees the market across the street, making it clear how close the store is and how little time Bonnie’s daughter will spend alone. It’s a small detail, but it reveals so much about the situation. Bonnie is running literally across the street to buy two items, and yet she’s scared to leave her daughter for that long.

In another scene, Cheyeanne tells the story of  the shooting, something that Bonnie doesn’t want to hear. What results is dialogue with only one person speaking:

“The thing I keep thinking about is how that bastard stepped on me,” she said.

Bonnie shifted on the couch. She flicked dust off the armrest. She noticed a dirty plate on Cheyeanne’s bedside table and reached over to grab it.

“Like I wasn’t even human,” Cheyeanne said. “Like I was nothing.”

Bonnie may not speak words, but she is still communicating. It’s not intentional communication, but nonetheless, she’s revealing her thoughts: she doesn’t want to hear this information, a fact that is shown by how she redirects her attention from what is being said.

Finally, there’s a long tradition in stories, particularly war stories like “Speaking of Courage” by Tim O’Brien and “Soldier’s Home” by Ernest Hemingway, in which characters speak but aren’t heard—at least not in a meaningful way. The same thing happens to Cheyeanne in a coffee shop with a sign posted that announces, “Ten percent of proceeds go to victims!”

“I actually was a victim,” Cheyeanne told the girl at the counter, after she’d ordered her drink.

“Of what?” the girl asked.

Cheyeanne pointed to the sign.

“Oh. No kidding?” the girl said. She smiled. She handed out the drink. “Straw?” she asked.

In this case, the physical description (she smiled, handed out the drink) tells the reader how to understand the dialogue. For example, if the description had instead said that the girl “trembled, her hand shaking as she handed out the drink,” the dialogue would be understood much differently.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s add physical description to dialogue, using “A Survivor’s Life” by Eli Saslow as a model:

  1. Use description to add context to dialogue. Saslow writes dialogue showing how nervous Bonnie is to leave her daughter alone, but that nervousness takes on a different meaning when we see the store across the street. So, find an exchange of dialogue that refers to something or someone (I know that’s a vague instruction, but it’s necessary.) In short, find a noun that one speaker references and feels something about (happiness, trepidation, anger). Then, show that noun to the reader. If there is some difference between how we see the noun and how it’s being discussed, that difference will provide context for what is being said.
  2. Use description to replace dialogue. It’s no secret that body language is a significant part of human communication, yet we tend to strip it out of dialogue. Or, we add meaningless details, the equivalent of someone clearing their throat. One strategy is to summarize what a character is communicating or thinking or feeling. This is different than a summary of what the character says, as anyone who has snapped, “And what is that supposed to mean?” knows well. Keep that summary in mind as you write the dialogue. If possible, delete one line of dialogue and replace it with a physical action. The goal is to communicate the same thing as the line of dialogue but without speaking. The result can be a more nuanced scene.
  3. Use dialogue to interpret dialogue. In the scene in the coffee shop, Saslow uses the description to help us understand the barista’s line, “No kidding?” The description shows her smile and a single action, but you could also describe a character’s clothing, posture, or what the character does immediately following the dialogue. The goal is to reveal the impact that the conversation has on the character.

The goal is to add nuance and depth to dialogue with physical description of the characters and the things around them.

Good luck.

An Interview with Tristan Ahtone

7 Jan
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.

January 2016

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

How to Describe a Character from the Perspective of Others

5 Jan
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 Give a Character a Job

8 Dec
Chaitali Sen's The Pathless Sky updates the star-crossed lovers tale with a novel set amid political turmoil and the possibility that geography and politics might still be overcome.

Chaitali Sen’s The Pathless Sky updates the star-crossed lovers tale, in a novel set amid political turmoil and the possibility that geography and politics might still be overcome.

Just as oceans cover 71% of the Earth’s surface, so do jobs occupy the vast majority of our waking hours. Yet in novels and stories, we tend to write about only the dry land—the family members, relationships, and conflicts that we often view as separate from work. Some critics claim this is due to the novel’s bourgeois roots. In this view, writers (for instance, Henry James) have often been people with wealth, who never had to get a “real job,” and so their novels reflect their lives of leisure. The opposite approach is to give characters low-paid, backbreaking jobs that reveal the oppression of society, as in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.

It’s true that jobs carry social connotations and political implications (today as ever), but this is not the only way to view work. What if the character likes the job? Or, what if a job is neither terrible nor great but, simply, part of the fabric of the character’s life? To write about work in this context, we need a different approach than ignoring labor altogether or using it as a metaphor for society.

Chaitali Sen demonstrates how this approach might work in her novel The Pathless Sky. You can read an excerpt from it here.

How the Novel Works

The Pathless Sky is set in an invented country, a purposeful and careful choice made by Sen (which she wrote about here). In her essay, “Why I Set My Novel in an Unnamed Country,” Sen writes, “My fictional setting was some sort of strange hybrid that probably revealed more about my own psychology than a singular geopolitical entity.” As with Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Before I Was a Gazan,” which I wrote about last week, the goal is to view a character not as a political entity but as a unique individual. The politics don’t disappear, but they are no longer foregrounded. As American readers, we tend to view characters from non-Western countries as representatives of an entire group of people, just as we tend to view characters who are restaurant servers and cooks, farm workers, and bankers as representatives of their work groups. The challenge is to allow readers to see character first and then the character’s job.

Watch how Sen does this:

Dr. Malick of the University of Sulat Province was a spry, wiry man in his fifties, with thin strands of hair that seemed drawn to some heavenly body wanting to lift him upwards. His papers were mostly technical, minor in scope. He seemed to relish the practice of geography, the tools, the products, the meditative fieldwork, the craft rather than the theory, as if he wanted to know only what was there and capture it with an artist’s hand, with little interest in the forces that created it. His talks were so tightly focused, so fixed on one object, in this case a single, intensely detailed map of English Canal illustrating the difficulties of mapping around an urban center where the geology is often obscured, that he often left his listeners wondering if he’d been speaking in a long, extended metaphor and they’d failed to grasp it.

The passage begins with details that have nothing to do with the character’s work as a geology professor. Instead, they’re focused on his appearance and what it reveals about his personality (spry, wiry, attracted to heavenly bodies). These traits are immediately juxtaposed with the nature of his work (technical, minor). It’s an unlikely pairing that leads to unexpected phrases (“relish the practice of geography”) and the terrific image of his students “wondering if he’d been speaking in a long, extended metaphor and they’d failed to grasp it.”

Sen has given her novel room to create character and a job for that character. Neither is a manifestation of the other. Each has the integrity of its own existence, and when they’re brought together, tension is created.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s give a character a job, using The Pathless Sky by Chaitali Sen as a model:

  1. Describe some aspect of the character’s physical existence. This could mean appearance: how he looks or how she carries herself. It could also be a reflection of the character’s interior life. For example, how often have you read a book with a dreamy character who sits and reads in the midst of some social gathering? You can do better. In the film Breach, Chris Cooper plays a FBI agent who sold secrets to the Russians, and when he walks down the hall with a coworker, he leans into the other man, continually pushing him into the wall. The character’s internal life is given external force. This is what Sen does with Dr. Malick’s hair. The force of his personality becomes externally animated: his hair seems to attempt to leave the Earth’s orbit. So, try to see your character as active, rather than passive (or with passivity that is consciously chosen). What details would the character’s acquaintances notice? How would they finish this sentence: Whenever we ___, she always ____?
  2. Attach adjectives to the character. I know that Ye Olde Workshop Rules ban adjectives, but that’s a bit like banning salt from food. Over-seasoning can ruin the product, of course, but a little bit can accentuate the natural flavors. In Sen’s passage, spry and wiry highlight the description of hair that follows. Without the adjectives, the image might pack less punch. So, try making a list of adjectives that might match the trait or description you’ve just written. How can you add one or two of these words to a sentence about the character?
  3. Introduce the job. Keep in mind that the job is not entering a neutral space. You’ve given it a charge with the description of the character. How does the job react? Is it charged a similar way? Does it carry an opposite charge? We think in similar terms in real life. When we learn someone’s job, we think, “Yeah, that makes sense,” or we’re befuddled. It doesn’t really make a difference which option you choose. What matters is that you’re conscious of the choice. Whether the job is a neat fit or an unlikely one, make the nature of the pairing clear to the reader.
  4. Develop the relationship between character and job. If the job is a neat fit for the character, describe the ease with which the character goes about her work. Or, describe how the meets the characters needs, whatever they are or how the character excels at the job. If the job is an unlikely pairing, describe, as Sen does, how the character surprises people in that workplace with how he carries out his duties. Or, how do the character’s traits make him unexpectedly good at his job?

The goal is to give a story space to create both character and a job, opening up more possibilities for tension and conflict.

Good luck.

How to Build a Story with Logistics

9 Dec
Rahul Kanakia's story, "Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)" was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Some university creative writing teachers don’t allow their students to write genre fiction: no ghosts, aliens, spaceships, vampires, or zombies unless they’re handled in a literary fashion (whatever that means). This isn’t my policy, but I understand it. Bad genre stories tend to skim the surface of an idea (stun guns, cosmic annihilation) in a cursory way that can be tedious and dull. And yet I’ve found that good genre stories are as much fun to read as any purely literary creation. So what makes a good genre story?

The answer is, in part, how imaginatively the story digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance; we’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story, then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes.

This is precisely what Rahul Kanakia does in his story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley).” He takes the idea of a ghost catcher (a la Ghostbusters) and focuses on the logistics of the profession in order to produce a story that is horrifying, funny, and complex. It was published at Clarkesworld, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Anyone who’s seen Ghostbusters will understand the basic concept of the story. A man captures and stores ghosts for a living. But what does that mean, logistically-speaking? Where are the ghosts found? How are they captured? Where are they stored? These are basic questions, but the answers are crucial to developing the story. Kanakia begins to provide these answers in a single paragraph:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me.

Where are the ghosts found? The usual places (people’s homes, as we learn elsewhere) but also in places that make logical sense and yet are unexpected. Of course you’d find ghosts in hospitals. Of course some of those ghosts would be babies. And, of course, some of those babies would have died in incubators. It makes perfect sense, but I’m willing to bet you’ve never read a story with these kinds of ghosts in it.

How are they captured? The same way they’re captured in Ghostbusters. But, note the verb that Kanakia uses: sucked. It’s not the tone typically used when talking about dead babies, and so it’s shocking.

Where are they stored? We know that from the story’s title: in the narrator’s house.

These answers flesh out the story by creating the world, but they also create the character. The most important question is one that many readers might not think to ask: What kind of person captures and stores ghosts? The answer is someone so callous or emotionally closed that the ghosts of dead babies in incubators doesn’t faze him (“That’s a Wednesday for me”).

By digging into the logistics of how the idea works (capturing ghosts), the story creates a character who must live with those logistics. The rest of the story explores what happens to such a character when he is faced with a problem that connects his supernatural profession to a mundane problem (finding a boarder). That story is impossible without the depth of character revealed in that paragraph about ghost babies.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a character by digging into the logistics of an idea, using Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story as a model:

  1. Identify the idea. If you’re writing a genre story, this should be fairly easy. Which genre element are you using? Ghosts, zombies, werewolves, aliens, etc? But it also applies to literary stories. Is your literary story a love story, revenge story, coming-of-age story, marital affair story, death of a loved one story, or dating (mis)adventure story? There are probably others; the point is that most stories fall into a genre of some kind, which is why my 11th-grade English teacher always claimed that no one had written an original plot since Shakespeare (who also borrowed his plots). Once you know the kind of story you’re writing, you can begin to identify the conventions of that story.
  2. Where does the idea exist? Setting matters. Try to get away from the default, bland world that is often associated with an idea (haunted houses for ghosts, nighttime underworlds for zombies, middle class suburbs for love stories). Where can you put the story that would make it seem original? What setting would make you unsure how the story would proceed? This doesn’t require you to do something extreme (zombies on Mars), only to explore the logical possibilities of the idea. Kanakia realized that ghosts could be babies, and so he took the story, at least for one paragraph, to a place where those ghosts could be found. How can you do this for your idea?
  3. How does the idea occur? What is the basic mechanism of the idea. Kanakia’s character sucks ghosts into bottles which he stores in his small house. On one hand, this is very similar to the most famous version of the idea (Ghostbusters), but, on the other hand, it’s also pretty different. Ghostbusters put the ghosts, which tended to be monstrous-looking, into an opaque vault. But what if you couldn’t afford a vault? And what if the ghosts didn’t look like monsters? By figuring out the mechanical logistics (where and how) of the idea, the story creates a space for a character to inhabit. How can you create a detailed space in your story? What is the where and how?
  4. How does the character feel about the idea? The key is to force the character to interact not with the idea in general but with the idea in its mechanical logistics. Do the logistics tax the character emotionally or physically? Is the character forced to develop a coping mechanism in order to interact with the logistics? Are there certain kinds of character traits that lend themselves to these particular logistics. In Kanakia’s story, an emotionally-open and empathetic character would struggle capture and store the ghosts of dead babies (and also of gay men who’d died of AIDS, as also occurs in the story). But if a character is emotionally closed enough to do this type of work, how does he function in other parts of his life? If you can create a character who learns to function within the idea (whatever your idea is), what happens when the character is taken outside or beyond that idea? Are his or her character traits helpful? Not helpful? Problematic?

Have fun playing around with the logistics of the idea. It’s possible that you’ll begin to see entirely new pathways for the story to travel. Good luck!

How to Write Active Character Descriptions

2 Dec
A Tree Born Crooked, a crime novel by Steph Post, is set in the Florida panhandle and follows the disaster of a theft gone wrong.

A Tree Born Crooked by Steph Post is set in the Florida panhandle and follows a man who tries to save his brother from the consequences of a theft-gone-wrong.

When we first start describing characters, there’s often a tendency to aim for a perfect representation, the equivalent of a photographic portrait. So we state the character’s body type, hair color and style, and clothes. But does even the most exact detail add up to something interesting? It’s often the case that a good character description, rather than being a snapshot, is more like the magical moving photographs that hang on the walls of Hogwarts. They’re active and dramatic.

A great example of this kind of description can be found early in Steph Post’s new crime novel A Tree Born Crooked. You can read the opening pages of the novel here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is set on the Florida panhandle and follows a man who is living in a trailer park when he receives a note that his father has died. So he returns home to the small town where he was born. There, we meet his mother:

Birdie Mae was a fat woman. She wasn’t big enough to be called “obese” or any other such ridiculous medical term. But she wasn’t small enough to be just “large” or “big-boned” either. “I’m fat, dammit. What the hell’s wrong with that?” she would yell at the doctors who tried to use polite euphemisms. She had big hands, with small fingernails that made them look bigger. Her eyes were a pretty blue, but always framed with gunky mascara, and when she worked at the store she wore peach eye shadow up to her eyebrows. Her thin lips usually carried the outline of sticky, pink lipstick. She had to constantly reapply it, as it always ended up smeared on her Virginia Slims. Her hair was long and dishwater blond, but James couldn’t remember ever seeing it down. Birdie wore her hair twisted and piled up on top of her head, sprayed into a motionless nest that didn’t even look good back when she first started doing it in the seventies. Birdie Mae had some delusion that she resembled Farrah Fawcett and running out of Aqua Net was cause for a family crisis. On more than one occasion, Birdie had refused to leave the bathroom until someone went out to the drugstore and brought back a can. She wore the clothes from the Citrus Shop that had defects and couldn’t be sold, so she usually stuffed herself into gaudy T-shirts and culottes. The shirt she was wearing today was hot pink with a silhouette of three palm trees. Above all, Birdie Mae thought she looked good, and that’s how she carried herself.

This description gives a pretty thorough portrait of Birdie Mae: her size and shape, her makeup, her hair, her clothes, and her attitude. What makes them interesting is the way Post makes them active, which she manages in four ways:

  1. The character is allowed to comment about the details. The description doesn’t just say that Birdie Mae is overweight; it lets her talk about being overweight (“I’m fat, dammit”). Without that snippet of dialogue, the character’s weight is static, something the reader sees and forms an opinion about. With the dialogue, though, the weight becomes active, something the character is thinking about. A a result, the reader is forced to deal with Birdie Mae’s opinion about herself. It’s the difference between judging people from a distance and sitting at a table, talking to them. The dialogue puts us at the table with Birdie Mae.
  2. A detail is given and then used to created drama. Post tells us that Birdie Mae uses Aqua Net on her hair. Then, she tells us what happens when the hair product isn’t available (“Birdie had refused to leave the bathroom until someone went to out to the drugstore and brought back a can”). Again, a simple detail is put into action.
  3. A general behavior or tendency is stated and then shown as it happens. We’re told that the character only wears gaudy clothes that she can’t sell at her store, and then we’re given this sentence: “The shirt she was wearing today was hot pink with a silhouette of three palm trees.” The tendency becomes active because it is happening as we speak.
  4. The details are summed up as an attitude. The problem with listing details about a character is that the items on the list often don’t cohere into something that resembles a living, breathing character. Instead, the details seem like the accessories of a Mr. Potato Head, something that can be changed or added at will. One way to make the details cohere is to end with a generalization, from the point of view of the narrator, another character, or the character being described. In this case, Birdie Mae’s point of view is privileged. After this long description, we’re told that “Birdie Mae thought she looked good, and that’s how she carried herself.” In short, we’re given a lens through which to view the details.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a character using A Tree Born Crooked by Steph Post as a model:

  1. Identify the character and make a list of details. You can also use a description that you’ve already written but aren’t happy with. It’s often the case that a description becomes active in revision, not in the first draft, when we’re trying to visualize the most basic aspects of the character.
  2. Let the character comment on a detail. It’s one thing to tell us that a character always wears a Chicago Bulls hat or goes back for a second helping at meals. It’s quite another to learn that and then hear what the character says about it. Is the character ashamed? Proud? Does the character make light of it? Direct our attention elsewhere? Rationalize it? Does the character have good reasons for the detail? State the detail and then let your character talk about it.
  3. Use a detail to create drama. If a character always does something or wears something, what happens when that something isn’t available? Anyone with kids immediately will understand this idea: try to put your kid to bed without their favorite stuffed animal or security blanket, and there’s going to be trouble. What happens when your character’s tendency or routine is thrown out of whack?
  4. Introduce a tendency and then show it in real time. Your character tends to do something, and they’re doing it right now. This is a good way to move the description from a place of timelessness to the immediacy of a scene.
  5. Sum up the details. Make them cohere into a whole that is larger than the pieces. Post does this by stating the character’s attitude about herself. You can also use metaphor and simile. The basic structure (which, once you realize it exists, you’ll see in books and stories everywhere) is this: detail, detail, detail, comparison. The character was this and this and this. She was like/a this. Here’s a bad example: He was always smiling, always laughing, always telling jokes. He was like a circus clown who’d wandered out of the tent and into someone’s home. You can do better than that, but it gives you the idea.

Good luck!

An Interview with Mary Helen Specht

29 Aug
Mary Helen Specht

Mary Helen Specht was recently the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, where she posted excerpts of her novel-in-progress, Migratory Animalsas well as interviews with the writers Sarah Bird and Rotimi Babatunde.

Mary Helen Specht might have been born and raised in Abilene, Texas, but after graduating from high school, she’s barely stopped moving. She’s studied at Rice University and Emerson College; worked in Santiago, Chile and Quito, Ecuador, and lived in Nigeria on a Fulbright grant. Most recently, she was a Fellow at the Dobie Paisano Ranch outside of Austin, and she’s now an assistant professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin.  A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has been published in numerous journals and literary magazines. She is currently working on a novel.

In this interview, Specht discusses introducing characters, the challenges of writing global fiction from an American perspective, and why she chose to use her experiences in Nigeria as the basis for a novel rather than a memoir.

(To read an excerpt from Specht’s novel-in-progress Migratory Animals and an exercise based on how she adeptly introduces two characters, click here.)

Michael Noll

One of the hardest things for beginning writers to do–and even for me–is to introduce characters to each other. So, I admire how easily you introduce Flannery and Kunle. You manage to cover the basics: where, when, and how and how they were dressed. But you also move on quickly. The introduction sets up the story rather than delaying it. Was this introduction always so smooth? Or did it become that way through revision?

Mary Helen Specht

The prologue has been the most worked over part of my novel. Each time I changed anything major about the rest of the book during a revision, the prologue would suddenly seem off. I’d lost the right emphasis or tone for what came next—a reverse domino effect. The fact that the prologue is set in Nigeria while much of the rest of the novel is set in the United States was another challenge—I felt that I had to give both the big picture trajectory of Flannery’s time there while also rooting the readers in scene. I ended up looking for guidance in the short story form for this, particularly in Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent collection Unaccustomed Earth, which inspired me to start on a large scale and then zoom in to the “meet cute” between Flannery and Kunle. I also tried to use concrete physical objects (like palm wine) to transition quickly through time while remaining in scene throughout. For me, introducing characters and places is all about allowing the physical environment to do double duty by standing in for (or at least echoing) the interior lives or relationships of the characters.

Michael Noll

The novel is set in Nigeria, and so, obviously, place plays an important role in the novel. And because you’re writing for an audience that likely hasn’t been to Nigeria, you’re writing about cities and a landscape that most of us don’t know. So I’m curious how you approached the descriptions of place. How did you balance the need to show enough details to locate the reader but also the need to keep the story moving?

Mary Helen Specht

Great question. This has been tremendously complicated, and like the prologue, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and revising the Nigeria sections. In particular, I didn’t want to portray Nigeria one-dimensionally, when in reality it is a country with rural huts and modern houses, dirt roads and concrete flyovers. I had notebooks full of descriptions of Nigeria from my time living there after graduate school, and I combed through them, looking for details that would do the most work in terms of demonstrating the country’s complexity. Instead of spending a paragraph explicating the strange mix of modernity and degradation at the university, for example, I used an image of a woman wearing a traditional wrapper while carrying a computer monitor on her head across campus.

Michael Noll

As the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, you wrote an essay, “The Challenges of Writing Global Fiction in the West.” In it, you talk about traveling to Nigeria for a Fulbright and knowing that you would write about the experience. And, yet, you wondered, “How could I use this setting, use my experiences with the people there, to write in a way that didn’t patronize, exoticize, or simplify the complex world of West Africa?” This is a significant problem with Western stories set outside of the West. Just recently, I saw the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which is about a group of British retirees who settle in India. In it, the Indians really only serve the purpose of enlightening the Brits. Yet, the film seemed well-intentioned. Is it possible to step outside of your Western influences when writing about places like India and Africa? Is there a way to somehow embrace your alien status and also honestly represent the people who are from that place?

Mary Helen Specht

The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi delivered this talk about the dangers of reducing a place to a single narrative at TED Global. The talk is 20 minutes and definitely worth checking out.

The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi delivered this talk about the dangers of reducing a place to a single narrative at TED Global. The talk is 20 minutes and definitely worth checking out.

I’ve spent a lot of time studying and writing about this question and my answer is this: I don’t know; but I won’t let myself off that easily. I certainly think there is an opportunity for writers from the developed world to write about the developing world in a way that is productive, especially when these writers use the opportunity to explore their own privilege and maybe even culpability. That said, I think it is almost impossible to entirely escape being part of the “western gaze” when writing about other cultures. I think the most important action writers like myself can take to make this situation less uncomfortable is to support—by reading, reviewing, promoting, assigning to our students etc.—international fiction written by non-western writers. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses in her TED talk (which you MUST watch if you haven’t—she’s amazing), the danger is perpetuating a “single story” about any given place. If there is a multiplicity of voices, native and non-native, all writing about a country or culture, then there isn’t the same pressure to provide some impossible “objective” viewpoint. The beauty of fiction, after all, is in the opposite, in its subjectivity and ability to refract the world through many prisms.

Michael Noll

You published an essay about falling in love with a Nigerian man in Nigeria for The New York Times. It’s a really great essay. It also shares some of the same details as Migratory Animals. What went into your decision to write the story as a novel rather than as a memoir? What did fictionalizing the story allow you to do that wasn’t possible in nonfiction?

Mary Helen Specht

People connected to the publishing industry convinced me to work on a memoir based on my time in Nigeria, and I tried. However, it ended up more of a collection of essays (and is where the NYT piece came from), than one story with a strong arc. So, I returned to what I’d always really wanted to do in the first place, which was write a novel using my time there as a loose inspiration. Fictionalizing allows me to imagine what might have been—if I’d been a different person with different desires and challenges, and if I’d made different choices or been born into a different situation. In the real world, we only get to live one life; writing fiction allows me, for a time, to embody other possibilities.

August 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Introduce Characters to Each Other

27 Aug
Mary Helen Specht was the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, where the prologue to her novel Migratory Animals was published.

Mary Helen Specht was the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, where the prologue to her novel Migratory Animals was published.

Sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult. For instance, how do you introduce two characters for the first time? A lot rides on the encounter. It’s not so different than dreaming about that guy or girl in middle school and worrying about how you’d ask him or her to the dance. The problem vexed F. Scott Fitzgerald—how to introduce Gatsby to Nick— so much that he slipped the great man in the back door. We meet him without knowing it.

If you want an easier way to introduce two characters, check out Mary Helen Specht’s great novel-in-progress Migratory Animals. The prologue was published at Necessary Fiction, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Here’s how Specht introduces the novel’s main characters: Flannery, a white American woman in her 20s visiting Nigeria, and Kunle, a Nigerian man in graduate school:

“She met Kunle at an outdoor canteen at the Nigerian university where she had been posted on what was supposed to be a brief data-collecting trip. Sitting at an adjacent table with a soda and a worn textbook, he leaned over and said, “You should try the palm wine.” Kunle wore slacks and a blue button-down Oxford, both ironed within an inch of their lives. Trim and preppy, he looked like one of those idealized husbands in films, usually too straight-laced to be Flannery’s type, the kind of man who kissed a beautiful wife before leaving for the office.”

Notice what Specht does not do: she doesn’t let the characters say, “Hi.” They don’t shake hands or make chit-chat. They don’t eye each other from across the room. The introduction just happens. Here’s a breakdown of how it works:

  1. When and where she met the man
  2. The initial encounter boiled down to a single spoken phrase and action
  3. What the man was wearing
  4. What his appearance reminder her of

If you used this template for every introduction in every story and novel, you’d be set for life. It’s an easy, efficient way to get two characters together.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce two characters using Mary Helen Specht’s novel as a model:

  1. Pick a setting: Why is the character/narrator there? In what specific place did the characters meet? Be explicit when starting the passage: He/She/I met So-and-so in this place.
  2. Pick a moment: Boil the initial encounter down to a single spoken phrase and action. When the main character/narrator leaves the encounter, what words of the other person will he/she remember and dream about?
  3. PIck the clothes: What is the person wearing? Be specific.
  4. Describe the clothes/style/appearance more generally: From one character’s perspective, describe the other character. What does he/she reminder her/him of? What feeling does he/she get when meeting the person?

That’s it. The encounter is over, and you can transition next to the next encounter. Mechanically speaking, all you need to do is get the characters onto the page together. The scene doesn’t need to be long, like the initial encounter in Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle. Be brief and efficient and move on.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Kelli Ford

8 Aug
Kelli Ford's story, "Walking Stick," was published in Drunken Boat.

Kelli Ford’s story, “Walking Stick,” was published in Drunken Boat, and you can read it here.

Kelli Ford was born in Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, and grew up in North Texas. She was the first in her family to graduate from college, and she went on to earn an M.F.A. at George Mason University. She was awarded a 2012-13 Dobie Paisano Fellowship through the University of Texas and the Texas Institute of Letters. While a fellow, she put the finishing touches on Crooked Hallelujah, a collection of linked stories that takes place in Eastern Oklahoma’s Indian Country and along the banks of the Red River.

In this interview, Ford discusses her process for describing characters, what it means to write about characters from low-income areas, and her solution to the tricky question of how to portray a character’s spoken language if the reader doesn’t understand it.

(To read Kelli’s story “Walking Stick” and an exercise based on her character descriptions, click here.)

Michael Noll

I admire your character descriptions. They’re quick and detailed, moving from the general (old lady) to the idiosyncratic (the fact that the sole of one of her shoes wears faster than the other) in just a few sentences. They’re also nestled within the story, so that the description leads directly into action or thought. How do you approach these descriptions? It can be difficult to fully visualize an invented character, but you make it look so easy.

Kelli Ford

Well, thank you, first of all. To answer this question, which is a nice, concise question about character descriptions, I think I need to take a step back. “Walking Stick” is one of my “origin obsession” stories. Some of us are blessed/cursed with the obsession of our origins and end up coming back again and again. I often think of this as a fault of mine, but try to both stretch myself to invent more and accept it as a gift with as much grace as I can muster.

So this is a roundabout way of answering your wonderful question with a terrible answer: I don’t know. These characters are inspired by my mom, her sisters, my grandmother, and great-grandmother. Of course—and as I always protest to my mom (too much?)—the people in the stories truly do become characters and take on a life of their own. They look ways, say things, and do things as they live on the page that their inspirational, real-life counterparts would never do.

I don’t know where the one worn shoe comes from. I don’t think my great-grandmother always wore out one shoe before the other, but the Anna Maria character does. Why or how? I think this is a character I know very well. It’s one that, perhaps, came easy. When I was writing the story, I didn’t find myself searching around for what she looks like or how she walks.

Other characters, and I’d imagine especially those who are wholly inventions, I have to search for, maybe, what he would wear or how he may respond to a fly crawling across his arm. (Does he wave it away distractedly, smash its guts on his arm, try but fail to Mr. Miyagi it in the air with chopsticks?) In the early pages of a story, descriptions can sometimes be a struggle with a character I am creating, or just beginning to know. I usually find myself more sure of these choices toward the end of the story. So much so, in fact, that maybe things once again begin to feel mysterious and not like choices at all. By the time I’m nearing the end of the story, I have a much better sense of that character, and it’s simply a matter of making sure I let go of early stuff, worked over as it may be, and truly start anew so this knowledge can be incorporated into the early stuff. On a purely nuts and bolts level, for me, that often means retyping each new draft each day so I’m not just tinkering and my subconscious is free to take off. Probably the invented characters require more cutting because I describe and describe trying to get it right, trying to know things for myself.

Michael Noll

This is a story about people who live without a lot of money. There’s a tendency in American fiction to portray these kinds of characters as either ennobled by poverty or as bloodthirsty and devolved. Your story does neither. Even though it’s about an old woman limping down to the tracks to carve up a cow hit by the train, the story never becomes cartoonish or cliched. Is this something you think about in your work?

Kelli Ford

I worry about sentimentality in my work, perhaps because so much comes back to the characters I write. For many of my characters, and especially Anna Maria and Lula, I feel so much for them. I really do. I feel the weight of their choices, the weight of the way the world acts upon them. Sometimes, you come across a character that can make you cry at your keyboard. So maybe the key, a key, is to be honest about them. Shit. We’re all saints and sinners, and poverty, or near-poverty, isn’t ennobling. Do you pay the light bill or buy the school clothes or do both and skip the car payment? Living with those kinds of choices doesn’t make you somehow more dignified than those around you. To write as if it does is dishonest, at best. Poor people are shitty all the time but, perhaps, have less agency to be shitty on a grander scale. If you work to create fully realized characters, and you aren’t setting out to ennoble or bloodthirst-ify a character, then characters are allowed to become either if that’s what the story demands, or rather what the character demands of the story.

Michael Noll

David Treuer essay collection, Native American Fiction: A User's Manual, challenges some of the popular notions about the influences behind and critical approaches to literature by Native American writers.

David Treuer essay collection, Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, challenges some of the popular notions about the influences behind and critical approaches to literature by Native American writers. To read an excerpt about language and identity, click here.

I’m interested in the story’s use of the Cherokee language. In David Treuer’s essay “Smartberries” from his book Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, he criticizes Louise Erdrich for misrepresenting and slighting the Ojibwe language in her novel The Antelope Wife. He claims that she slights the language in choosing mostly nouns when Ojibwe is a verb-based language and in almost always translating the Ojibwe into English. He says this:

“Erdrich adheres to the most popular conventions that govern the use of foreign words in English…the reader is left with sentiments about the Ojibwe language and instances in which Ojibwe functions as an ornament, not as a working part of the novel’s machinery…As with many other Native American novels, the use of lexical nuggets ends up feeling more like display, with language itself a museum piece.”

What are your thoughts about this problem: how to portray a character’s spoken language if the reader doesn’t understand it. In “Walking Stick,” the characters talk to one another in Cherokee, and their words are not translated. You seem to be honoring the integrity of the language. Is this an intentional move?

Kelli Ford

This is a great question! I’ve thought a lot about it, and to be honest, I don’t think I do a good job of “honoring the integrity of the language.” There’s nothing particularly Indian about the story aside from content, the characters and the tiny Oklahoma town they live in. Anna Maria is living in two worlds. She’s seeing her family become more white with each generation. Her daughter has moved in and has her own set of expectations and needs. Their religion is becoming the most important part of their identity. Anna Maria speaks her native language when she sees the Cheaters, and it’s a comfort, almost a sadness.

In “Smartberries,” Treuer says of the Ojibwe in Love Medicine (a book I’m more familiar with), “Strangely, the use of…words—though done seldom—highlights the longing for culture, not its presence” (64). He criticizes not just Erdrich’s mishandling of Ojibwe, but critics’ discussion of her work as particularly Native American in structure, in narrative approach, etc.

Having Anna Maria speak Cherokee is similar, I suppose, to writing her with a limp and one crappy shoe. I don’t think of these choices as “ornamental,” any more than I think having one of Erdrich’s characters speak Ojibwe is ornamental. These choices are integral to the characters as they are written.

That’s not to excuse mishandling the language. Erdrich didn’t grow up speaking the language. Neither did I, though like her I grew up hearing it. So should that preclude me from writing a character who speaks the language? Because Love Medicine is such a powerful and beautiful piece of literature, I say definitely not. (To be clear, I’m not comparing my work to hers—that would be nuts—I’m only comparing the use of language.) Should I work harder to do a better job and make the Cherokee I may happen to use better, more accurate, more complex? For sure. In “Walking Stick,” Anna Maria uses very basic greetings. It was a conscious choice not to translate the language for the most part, but she’s using simple greetings. It wasn’t really a difficult choice, though I suppose I could have taken it a bit further and used the actual Cherokee syllabary, which would have added another level of distance and work for readers who don’t speak the language. As it’s written, not much was a stake, but you know, she’s limited by my own limitations. That’s a real drag. You never want your character to be limited by your own ignorance, but when you are talking about a language, you can’t really sit down in the library for a couple weeks of research and be good.

This story is many years old. I am not sure I would try to use the language now, but you know, I hope I would. I hope I would simply work harder to get it right, to make it better, understanding that I’m going to get some things wrong. For this one, I used memory and books. I called the Cherokee Nation and talked to someone who was a cultural liaison of sorts to get a-do-la-nv-ss-di, but I don’t know if someone would really use this word as a nickname. I sent the story to a cousin to take a look at the language.

Erdrich is continually revising. In The Paris Review interview published a couple of years ago, she says that improving her use of Ojibwe is one reason she’s always revising, even Love Medicine, which is sort of a holy grail for me, as you can probably tell. It’s a great fear of mine that a native speaker will happen across one of my stories, or one of my cousins will follow a Facebook link, and see faults with the language. That simply means I have to work harder if I have another character that needs to speak the language. I don’t want to shy away from a story. I want my allegiance first to be to the character.

Michael Noll

This is an old story, but it was picked up recently by Drunken Boat. What is your process for sending work out? How did this story find its way to publication?

Kelli Ford

Well, I started out, like many of us do, with the Dick Cheney hunting birds process of submission. Send it out everywhere, hope you hit something, anything. But gradually, I think I’ve gotten a bit more focused. It’s hard, though. On a budget you can’t really subscribe to all the magazines and journals you’d like to, despite your best intentions. I find a few contemporary writers doing stuff I like and look at who is accepting their work, get subscriptions where I can, and send a story into the slush-ether with fingers crossed. If a writer I like edits a magazine, I send something there. I always have my dream magazines like The Southern Review or Oxford American.

This publication came about because Drunken Boat had a Native issue a while back. I submitted something that wasn’t quite right but got a nice note back that essentially said no really, send us something again and do it quickly! So I did. Even so, there was a new fiction editor in place by the time I sent “Walking Stick.” So that’s a small bit of advice to students and folks early in the process of submissions. When you get those nice rejections, act quickly. Send something else if you think you have something better suited for the magazine. Editors move on, and if one asks for more work, I think he or she generally really means it.

August 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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