Tag Archives: describing characters

How to Not Over-Explain a Character’s Behavior

20 Dec
Sam Allingham's collection The Great American Songbook has been called "hilarious and deeply unnerving" by Dan Chaon.

Sam Allingham’s collection The Great American Songbook has been called “hilarious and deeply unnerving” by Dan Chaon.

When you sit through enough writing workshops, you begin to recognize certain patterns to how students respond to stories. For example, in almost every workshop, someone will say about a story, “I want more.” A good instructor will push back: “More what?” And that’s usually where the critique begins to break down. “I don’t know, just more,” the student might say. For the person whose story it is, this can be incredibly frustrating. But it’s also a necessary part of learning to diagnose what isn’t working in a piece of fiction. The person saying, “I want more,” senses that there’s a problem but doesn’t know what it is. The problem could be almost anything, but the solution is almost never simply writing more. In fact, more can often ruin whatever is most compelling about the story.

A good example of how less-is-more can drive a story forward can be found in Sam Allingham’s story, “Stockholm Syndrome.” It was originally published in Epoch and is included in his debut collection The Great American Songbook.

How the Story Works

The story is about a woman, Betty, who has come out of an abusive relationship with a man named Will. Most of the story takes place after the relationship has ended, when she works in a coffee shop with a magnetic, mysterious barista, Thomas, that she has a crush on. The foundation for how she interacts with this new guy and what happens next is that early relationship. Here’s one scene from that backstory:

But then there was the rest stop, just after they crossed into Idaho. When they passed through the double doors and passed the crane machine to Roy Rogers, he grabbed her arm and held her close, as if he was afraid of losing her—as if she might disappear into the crowd and leave him behind. She remembers wanting to whisper, You don’t need to hold so tight. He looked so sad in those days, pale and skinny in his Smiths T-shirt. You could see in his eyes this overwhelming need for love.

When she went to pay, she found that her wallet was missing.

“You dropped it on the floor of the car,” he spoke from behind her shoulder. “Lucky I picked it up.”

He took out her money and paid for them both.

It’s good I have Will around to remember things, she often told people. I’m so absent-minded.

The end of this scene packs a punch because we, the readers, understand the flaw in her thinking. We know she’s being manipulated. We’re worried about his “overwhelming need for love” and pick up on the gross detail about him paying for them both with her money. Naturally, we wonder why she doesn’t pick up on these things, too. After all, it’s her story. We get inside her head. We trust her perspective. If this story was being workshopped, someone might ask, “Why doesn’t she see what he’s doing?” and then trot out that dreaded statement: “I want to see more of this relationship.”

The problem is that showing more of the relationship won’t explain why Betty didn’t recognize what Will was doing (or didn’t admit to herself that she recognized it). It’s like when I’m searching the refrigerator for something and can’t find it. Then, my wife comes over and finds it immediately. “How did you not see it?” she’ll ask. I don’t know. I just didn’t. There’s no explaining it.

In “Stockholm Syndrome,” explaining why Betty doesn’t see through Will would ruin the story. So, Allingham doesn’t try. Instead, he does something much more interesting. Here’s the beginning of the next scene (after a space break):

Betty doesn’t really know Thomas’ girlfriend, Leigh Anne. Nobody at the shop does. She never comes in; when she does come to meet Thomas, she calls in advance and has him meet her in a health food store a few blocks away, where Thomas says she buys her tinctures and herbal supplements. Leigh Anne has a number of health problems that Thomas can never quite explain, problems that make it difficult for her to get out of bed in the morning.

Taken on its own, without context, this description of Thomas and Leigh Anne’s relationship might sound a little off, but coming as it does after Will’s manipulation of Betty, this passage rings some pretty clear warning bells. Allingham drives this home with a bit of dialogue from another coffee shop worker:

It’s sweet of Thomas to take care of Leigh Anne like that,” Valerie says. “A lot of people would have let somebody like that drop.”

Instead of explaining Betty’s own relationship, Allingham drops her into a situation where something similar seems to be happening. The question becomes, “What will she do?” In short, the important question to answer is not “Why did she do that?” but “What will she do next?”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make the reader ask “What will she do next?” using “Stockholm Syndrome” by Sam Allingham as a model:

  1.  Give your character a blind spot. What does the character not see that others recognize? Betty doesn’t see (or doesn’t admit) that she’s being manipulated by Will. Shakespeare did this constantly: Othello and Macbeth don’t see some pretty significant things. For them, this blindness is a so-called fatal flaw, but the blind spot doesn’t necessarily need to lead to a bad ending. Most romantic comedies are also built around blind spots: everyone knows the two characters are meant to be—except the two characters. What does your character not recognize?
  2. Juxtapose the thing and the blindness. Allingham does this with the wallet scene, following Will’s manipulative actions immediately with Betty’s thoughts: It’s good I have Will around to remember things…I’m so absent-minded. Putting these so closely together highlights the blind spot. So, find a clear scene that contains both the thing that is not seen and the character not seeing it.
  3. Don’t belabor this juxtaposition. Drop it on the reader and then get out. Allingham literally gets out of the scene with a space break.
  4. Put the blind character in a situation with someone else who is blind in the same way. Betty sees a similar situation in Thomas and Leigh Anne’s relationship, but she’s not blind to it because it’s not happening to her. The trick to making this work is laying out the situation clearly so that everyone understands the connections. Don’t be subtle or sly. In fact, don’t be afraid to drive home the connection, as Allingham does with Valerie’s dialogue. He makes Valerie blind in the same way that Betty was blind in the earlier scene—or so it seems.

The goal is to create an opportunity for a character to act. It’s like the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” If a character has been fooled or blinded in the past, he or she will naturally want to get it right the next time around. The question becomes, what will the character do this time—and is the character actually seeing things more clearly now?

Good luck.

How to Make a Character Represent a Place or Group

11 Oct
Leona Theis' story "How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga" appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Leona Theis’ story “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” appears in the latest issue of American Short Fiction, alongside stories by Matt Bell, Smith Henderson, and Porochista Khakpour.

Stories, novels, and even essays feature two types of characters (broadly speaking): major, complex characters and minor, flat ones.  The terms are basically shorthand for this: some characters get a lot of time on the page while others might show up for only a sentence, the literary equivalent of a nameless movie henchman or Star Trek crew member. In action scenes, the minor character exists as a plot device, to get chopped down so that the major characters will act. But what about in stories where action isn’t the primary draw?

Leona Theis offers a great example of such a character and story in “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” which won the American Short Fiction contest (judged by Elizabeth McCracken) and appears in the latest issue of the magazine.

How the Story Works

The story takes place in 1974 in a Canadian university town. Sylvie is sharing an apartment with a woman she met at a bus stop. The women “each ran with a different crowd, and they agreed this would make for a good relationship, each of them minding her own business.” As anyone who’s ever shared an apartment might guess, it’s not long before the different crowds collide:

Lisa had moved into the suite a week earlier than Sylvie, claimed the larger bedroom, and stacked three twelve-packs of empty Labatt’s Blue bottles on the floor at the end of the kitchen cupboard. Sylvie associated Blue with truck drivers and guys who went out to Alberta to work the rigs. As if to confirm, Lisa’s fiancé Dave, a house framer, came by one night with three of his friends who were home from Alberta for the weekend. Not one of them wore his hair long; their fun appeared to come from drinking and its related games. Sylvie knelt and put Led Zeppelin on the turntable.

In this passage, Theis uses objects and places as emblems of a particular culture and class. On one hand, there’s the sort of men who drink Labatt’s Blue, drive trucks for Alberta oil rigs, and frame houses. On the other hand, there are men with long hair who listen to Led Zeppelin. Each of these details could be a throw-away detail, but because the passage has a point (showing how Lisa and Sylvie inhabit different worlds), each one is given a purpose.

The result is a short interaction with a minor character that acts as a kind of mic drop for the passage. It picks up after Sylvie puts on Led Zeppelin:

“Anybody mind?”

“Far out,” said the burly guy in the quilted vest in the armchair, and Sylvie could sense the effort involved, like someone who’d never taken French at school trying to say au revoir.

The minor character (un-named, like a henchman) is given a line of dialogue that puts his quilted vest and Labatt Blue into action: it lets him try to bridge the divide between the Lisa and Sylvie worlds.

When we talk about setting, we often refer to descriptions of place, but setting, like most writing terms, can be built in many different ways, as talented writers like Theis demonstrate.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a character represent a place or group, using “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga” by Leona Theis as a model:

  1. Figure out what worlds or groups exist in the story. Literature is full of examples: the cliques in high school stories, the many version of “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse,” the rookies and pros from sports stories, insiders and outsiders, and worlds of gender, race, sexuality, politics, religion, and probably a hundred other ways that we divvy ourselves (or are divvied) into groups. Which ones are present in your story?
  2. Place your major characters into those worlds or groups. Which groups do your main characters belong to? As you can tell from the examples above, group identity can become a significant part of a story’s plot. In “How Sylvie Failed to Become a Better Person through Yoga,” the groups aren’t as essential to the story as in, say, a sports or high school story, but they certainly affect the characters and plot. So, don’t worry yet about what you’ll do with these groups. Just find which groups your characters are part of.
  3. Choose an acquaintance or someone close to one major character. In Theis’ story, we meet the roommate’s fiancé’s friend—so, someone who one of the major character (Lisa) knows but not someone she’s particularly close to, which makes him easy to discard after he’s done his job in the story. Because he’s not important, he can simply walk onto the page, do his thing, and leave. You can make a list of all of the possible acquaintances for your major characters, or you can try this:
  4. Decide what effect you’re going for. In Theis’ story, the passage accentuates the cultural difference between Sylvie (long hair, Led Zeppelin) and Lisa (Labatt’s Blue, truckers). Of course, this affect could be created by the great details she chooses, but it’s reinforced and made dramatic (and, therefore, interesting) by having it personified. So, in walks “the burly guy in the quilted vest.” He’s called forth by the situation. If Theis hadn’t needed to show the cultural difference between Sylvie and Lisa, the burly guy never would have been invented. What effect are you going for? What is the point of this particular passage in your story?
  5. Let the character react to something from another world. The burly guy is interesting only because he tries to engage with Sylvie on her terms (the terms of her world), which means responding to Led Zeppelin. Because he’s not from that long-haired world, his attempt to fit in isn’t smooth—which is what makes the moment interesting. What detail or person can your minor character interact with? How can the character try to engage with that person or detail on that person/detail’s terms? (In other words, what is the Led Zeppelin that your minor character must try to deal with?)

The goal is to create character, setting, and drama by letting a minor character represent his or her larger group and engage with some other group. If this sounds like science fiction and fantasy, that’s because this is what those genres do over and over again, but with aliens/dwarves/space travelers/vampires instead of truckers and hippies.

Good luck.

An Interview with Kelli Jo Ford

28 Apr
Kelli Jo Ford is a former Dobie Paisano fellow and recent winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

Kelli Jo Ford has held the prestigious Dobie Paisano fellowship and recently won an Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

Kelli Jo Ford’s fiction has appeared in Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial, New Delta ReviewDrunken Boat, and Virginia Quarterly Review. A Dobie Paisano Fellow and an Elizabeth George Foundation grant recipient, she holds an MFA from George Mason University. She is a member of the Cherokee Nation. She currently lives in Virginia and putting the finishing touches on Crooked Hallelujah, a collection of linked stories about a mixed-blood Cherokee mother and daughter who move from Eastern Oklahoma’s Indian Country to North Texas to start life anew amidst the oil bust of the 1980s.

To read an exercise on describing characters without relying on mirrors and Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn,” click here.

In this interview, Ford discusses the revision advice of Alan Cheuse, the challenge of portraying characters both as they are and as they’re viewed by others, and resolving (or not) plot threads in a story.

Michael Noll

Your character descriptions are so good. I love this passage: 

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.

I love how the passage has multiple things happening at once: the narrator telling his son what to do, the boy ignoring him, the action (throwing the food, drinking the Dr. Pepper), physical description (baldness), and emotion (the narrator’s various reasons for feeling proud). Do all these things land on the page as you write, or do you start with one or two and build the rest in gradually?

Kelli Jo Ford

Thank you, Michael! Sometimes a passage will come in a glorious chunk that sticks around in its God-given form. Usually though, it’s a matter of writing and rewriting. I retype my drafts a lot, something I think I picked up from Alan Cheuse back at George Mason, who felt rewriting (or retyping) a draft allows you let go of what’s there and truly revise instead of tweak. It’s slow work, especially for a plodder like me, but I find it so helpful. I’m constantly adding new stuff, layers or descriptions, which lately has created the problem of what to cull.

I couldn’t remember how that bit came to be until I found an old draft of the story. It looks like most of the descriptions were there but sort of spread out in the narrator’s rambling, which I condensed a good bit. In addition to Paul Reyes’s keen eye at VQR, I’m sure the final product came about with great help from my husband, Scott Weaver, who’s a poet and really helps me 1) see what a story is trying to be about (for lack of a better word) and 2) tighten my language and descriptions.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the son’s wife—the Indian, as the narrator calls her. I don’t think we ever learn her actual name. She’s just, “the Indian” or “that Indian daughter-in-law.” What was your approach to this character—and to the narrator’s view of her?

Kelli Jo Ford

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.

Justine is actually one of the main characters in the collection I’m working on. She and Ferrell have a sort of lovingly contentious relationship, though it doesn’t come through in this stand-alone piece. She’s a truth-teller and doesn’t let him get away with much. During the time period when this story takes place, they are going through a pretty contentious time, but of course, there’s more to it than that.

As we went through final edits, I began to feel a little uncomfortable with the narrator’s portrayal of Justine, to be honest. Justine’s the hero of the collection! In the end, I was comfortable enough, I guess, with what Ferrell’s portrayal of Justine says about him. “Lovingly contentious” is where I started, but doesn’t cover enough ground. Ferrell’s story grounds us in the culture Justine and Reney, the “little girl already in tow,” confront in North Texas. Through Ferrell we see the casual racism they face. The story is told from his perspective, so there’s no filter. I could go on more here, but that would probably be more relevant to the collection than this particular story.

At the same time, there is love and respect between the two. From Ferrell’s perspective, calling Justine “the Indian” is probably no different from the banter (or what he might call “good-natured ribbing”) that takes place at the D.Q., but that doesn’t make it any less racist or potentially hurtful. I’m out of my depth, but I’m thinking about micro-aggressions and the way that something Ferrell perceives as banter could quickly become straight-up aggressive, hurtful, and racist.

As for how his use of “the Indian” functions in the story, I think it allows readers to see Ferrell better than he sees himself. I hope readers pick up on some of Ferrell’s self-delusion and see that probably everything Justine tells him is spot-on—and that despite his hoo-hawing, he has heard every word.

In earlier drafts, the only female characters he called by name were Liza Blue and Elsie from the DQ, so the most important women in his life—his wife, the girl from Wyoming, and the Indian—didn’t get names. In the end, it got a little tedious and confusing to refer to his wife as “my wife” over and over. So having him name her was a technical decision that may make his usage of “the Indian” stand out a little more.

Michael Noll

In seems that a crucial question in this story is how we feel about the narrator’s actions with the Wyoming girl. But, frankly, I have no idea how I feel about it. What happens is, on one hand, part of the great tradition of “loving someone you’re not married to” stories. But it also cuts against the usual storyline in such unexpected ways that I’m don’t know wha to feel. When you finished the story, did you have a particular way you wanted the reader to react and feel?

Kelli Jo Ford

Good question! I don’t think I was going for a particular reaction or feeling. I think I only hoped to put readers right there with him and to, perhaps, help them see him better than he sees himself.

In some ways, the story for me started with that scene. Well, that scene and the magic horse. So the trick, if there was one, was to somehow get readers to want to keep reading and caring about the story, despite the character’s pretty despicable actions.

Michael Noll

The story starts with the threat of fire, and while we get the fire of passion, the actual fire never arrives. Was this always the case? It’s an interesting structure. You go back and forth between past and present, and I expected the present to be resolved one way or another. When it wasn’t, I felt relieved. If the fire had come through and burned everything–a kind of thematic burning–it would have felt cheap, I think. Were you ever tempted to do that?

Kelli Jo Ford

I don’t think I was ever tempted to resolve the question of whether the fire arrives, not in this story, at least. In “Bonita,” a companion piece of sorts, we learn that the fire does destroy Ferrell’s house, but that didn’t seem important to Ferrell’s story, somehow. Though he has some misgivings at the end, the house is the least important thing to him that day. Later, he may realize he was wrong to toss aside a life’s worth of memories, as well as a family that clearly cares for him. But as far as the confines of this story, (he thinks) he’s all forward motion

Maybe the past and present structure reflects how much the past is present for him. If he slowed down to think about it much, he might make a different decision.

April 2016

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

An Interview with Kaitlyn Greenidge

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

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

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

To read an exercise on introducing characters, click here.

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

Michael Noll

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

Kaitlyn Greenidge

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

Michael Noll

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

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

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

Kaitlyn Greenidge

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Kaitlyn Greenidge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Kaitlyn Greenidge

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

April 2016

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

How to Describe a Character’s Mental State

20 May
Nami Mun's novel Miles From Nowhere was a Booklist Top Ten Novel in 2009.

Nami Mun’s novel Miles from Nowhere was a Booklist Top Ten First Novel.

Our tendency as writers is to focus on describing the emotions of the characters closest to us: our narrators or, in the case of third person POV, the character we’re following. We become a Henry James-in-training, trying to capture the minute shifts of perception and feeling that occur inside the characters’ heads. But what happens when we need to describe those shifts of emotion inside a character whose head is closed to us? How do you describe an internal thought process when all you have available is the character’s exterior appearance?

A good example for how to approach this problem can be found in Nami Mun’s story, “Club Orchid.” It was a chapter in her novel Miles from Nowhere, a startling book about a homeless teenager that seemed to come out of nowhere in 2009 and appeared on many best-of lists. “Club Orchid” was originally published in Evergreen Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a homeless teenage girl in New York City in the 1980s. She rents a blood-stained mattress at night and has found a job in a brothel. Here is a passage that demonstrates the narrator describing her own thoughts and feelings about the club:

But the club was all right for what it was and I was just glad to come in from the rain. After a whole day of walking around downtown looking for work at grocery stores, gas stations, and donut shops, it was nice to hear someone say you’re hired, just by looking at you. Like I was a model or something. Miss T. didn’t give me any forms to fill out, didn’t ask how old I was or where I went to school. She did ask if I was over eighteen, and I felt bad about lying, but I really needed the money. And to be honest, she didn’t seem to care all that much about my answer. Rajeev the night manager at Bombay Palace Hotel had asked me the same question before renting me a room, and I’d lied to him, too. But I didn’t feel guilty about fibbing to him because he charged too much money.

Notice the indicator phrases: “I was just glad,” “it was nice,” “I felt bad,” and “But I didn’t feel guilty.” These types of phrases are available to a narrator talking about herself. But, they’re not available if she’s describing the interior mind of someone else. Here is a passage that shows how the description changes. The narrator is talking to a man who has hired her services, and she’s failed to follow the act he expected:

I turned back and caught the old man wiping his face up and down with both hands, like he was washing it or something, then he rattled his head to shake off the invisible water. He took a deep breath, held it, then let it out, sending me a wave of garlic and more garlic. His face squeezed out a big clown smile that looked more painful than anything, and he pulled up his chair closer to the table, sitting upright and tall. He was a new man. He was gonna take it from the top.

One key to this passage is that the narrator not only describes the man but mentally engages with the things she is describing. In other words, the thoughts and intentions behind the man’s actions are important to the narrator. She’s in a dangerous and unfamiliar situation, and so it’s necessary for her to figure out what is happening around her. As a result, the narrator provides specific descriptions of the man’s appearance and behavior and experiences these descriptions in different ways: she compares them to actions she’s familiar with (“like he was washing it”) and smells them (“sending me a wave of garlic and more garlic”). She also imagines the physical sensations that he feels (“a big clown smile that looked more painful than anything”). Finally, she interprets his intentions (“He was a new man. He was going to take it from the top.”)

If you go back and look at the first passage, you’ll see the difference. In the paragraph about the man, Mun uses none of the indicator phrases that appeared in the paragraph about herself. This may seem fairly obvious, but in early drafts of stories, it’s not unusual to find writers forcing narrators to convey their own emotions by describing their physical appearance (the most common way is to have a narrator look into a mirror). Or, the writer will force a narrator to describe another character’s emotion without describing that character physically; the result becomes speculation that can make the reader wonder about the narrator’s reliability.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe the thought processes and emotions of a character whose head is closed to us, using Nami Mun’s story “Club Orchid” as a model:

  1. Choose the characters. You’ll need a narrator and another character. Give them a relationship (friends, spouses, lovers, siblings, parent-child, customer-service provider, etc).
  2. Determine the situation. You don’t want to choose a scene in which nothing is at stake. Think of the situation as a transaction: the narrator is trying to get something from or give something to the other character (or vice versa). The thing being transacted could be information (where were you last night?), a word (yes or no), an agreement (what do you want to do?), or even engagement itself (talk to me, look at me, don’t ignore me). The thing could also be money or some object or action. I read a lot of Matt Christopher’s baseball novels when I was a kid, and the transactions in them were often between pitchers and batters. The thing being transacted was a baseball, but it was also cues that might give away the character’s intention for that ball (curveball, fastball, changeup). Be specific about what the narrator is trying to get out of the situation.
  3. Let the narrator describe the character using a comparison. So, you’ll need a description of the character (“the old man wiping his face up and down with both hands”) and the narrator’s sense of what that description is like (“like he was washing it or something”). The key is to give the character something to do. Try to avoid gazes (he looked at me like he was a jackal).
  4. Let the narrator engage physically with the description. Again, you’ll need a description of the character (“He took a deep breath, held it, then let it out”) and a way for the character to engage physically with it (“sending me a wave of garlic and more garlic”). The physical engagement can be through any of the four senses other than sight. Your goal is to make your narrator more than a distant observer. It’s one thing to watch somebody have a breakdown through a window, but it’s another to watch it from across the table. Make whatever the narrator is observing difficult to evade or hide from.
  5. Let the narrator imagine the character’s physical experience. In other words, let your character notice something (“a big clown smile”) and then imagine what it feels like (“more painful than anything”). This might be the easiest of the descriptions. One way to approach it is to watch for act and reaction: for instance, a character slamming the table with her fist and then the grimace that immediately follows. Allow your narrator to comment on what he sees.
  6. Let the narrator interpret the character’s intentions. Think of everything that the narrator has described (all of the character’s actions) as a transition from one mental state to another. So, is the character transitioning from joy to anger, from confusion to clarity, from grief to frustration? What is the outcome after these actions take place? Because the narrator cannot escape what is happening (Step 4), this outcome matters a great deal. So, let the narrator try to understand what that outcome might be (“He was a new man. He was going to take it from the top.”)

This exercise may yield a lot of writing. The next stage will be paring it back to a passage that propels the story forward. This likely means simply picking the descriptions that work best.

Good luck!

How to Describe A Character

6 Aug
Kelli Ford's story, "Walking Stick" appeared in Drunken Boat.

Kelli Ford’s story, “Walking Stick” appeared in Drunken Boat. She recently served as the fellow at the Dobie Paisano Ranch near Austin, where she worked on finishing a story collection, Crooked Hallelujah.

When people call Anton Chekhov the greatest short story writer, they often talk about how quickly he develops characters. In “The Lady with the Dog,” for instance, he sums up a gentleman in Moscow this way: After the main character reveals the tiniest bit of his feelings about a woman to a friend at a dinner club, the friend says, “You were quite right, you know—the sturgeon was just a leetle off.” An entire social dynamic is revealed in those few words.

The best character descriptions do more than only show the reader a character. They reveal something about the way the world works or the way a character interacts with that world. Kelli Ford writes those kind of descriptions. To see how she does it, check out her story “Walking Stick.” You can read it now at Drunken Boat.

How the Story Works

Here’s how Kelli Ford describes one character:

“At sixty-seven, Anna Maria did not hurry with much these days. She was still stout and round, but a bone spur on her right ankle forced her foot out at an odd angle. That shoe always wore thin on the inside before the other. She could feel the gravel poking through.”

We learn not only that Anna Maria is poor and old, that she’s overweight with a limp, and that she lives in a place with gravel roads. But we also learn about how she faces a world that isn’t easy for a poor, old, overweight woman with a limp. We understand her mentality through the simple, matter of fact description of the shoes and the fact that she can feel the gravel. One of the most important words in the passage is always. Thin shoes and poky gravel are facts of Anna Maria’s existence, and she does not complain. A lesser writer would call her stoic, but a description like this one, because it shows us the character so thoroughly, makes us believe that she exists.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a character, using Kelli Ford’s description of Anna Maria as a model:

  1. Start with the character’s age: “At — years old, So-and-so did (did not) _______.”
  2. Describe the character in terms of how he/she has always been: “He was still ______”
  3. But then add a recent change: “But (some new thing) made her ______.”
  4. Describe the affect this change has on the character: “As a result…”
  5. Describe the world from the character’s POV. Given the recent change, how does the character see the world? What does the character notice or do?

The idea is to move beyond basic physicality or mentality (short, tall, skinny, fat, smart, dumb, happy, sad) to a sense of interaction with the world. This means creating pressure on both sides: the pressure the world applies to the character and the way the character pushes back.

Good luck and have f un.

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