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Jan's Writing Basics #8--Developing Interesting Characters

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Postby Bear-Bear » Tue Apr 13, 2010 10:13 pm

This is an excerpt from an OLD novel for teenagers I was working on some years ago. In this passage, my main goal is to give a quick introduction of Wanda. (Dan, the Pastor's son on the ladder, has already been introduced, so is already known to be pretty conservative and studious in speech and manner).
Dan was leaning out from the top of the ladder, sliding his hands along the gutter, trying to get a string of lights looped over a nail. "You are lifesavers, people! I'll be eternally grateful. Promise! I --"

He broke off, surprised, as Wanda took a few running steps and then did a cartwheel on the lawn. Although athletic, it was an unusual display of spontaneous zest for her.

She dusted off the blades of grass that clung to her hands onto her jeans. "Can't believe how great the shin's doin'. Didn't feel a thing on that one. Those Tigers are gonna rue the day at Friday's game, betcha."

Bounding over to the bottom of the ladder, she looked up at Dan, eyes sparkling with joy. Her dark brown, African American skin seemed to glow. All through last term's volleyball season, she'd been fighting a shin problem the doctor couldn't diagnose.



That was a re-write from this initial draft material ...

Dan was leaning out from the top of the ladder, sliding his hands along the gutter, trying to get a string of lights looped over a nail. "You are lifesavers, people! I'll be eternally grateful, I promise! I can't tell you --" He broke off in surprise as Wanda took a few running steps and then did a cartwheel on the lawn. Although athletic, it was an unusual display of spontaneous zest for her. She dusted off the blades of grass clinging to her hands, onto her jeans. "I can't believe how great my shin feels! I think it's almost healed!" Her eyes full of joy, she bounded over to the bottom of the ladder, looking up at Dan. Her dark brown, African American skin seemed to glow with enthusiasm. She had been fighting a shin problem during volleyball season last term that the doctor could not diagnose.


I'll take opportunity to ask a question rather than comment . . .

To me, "Her dark brown, African American skin seemed to glow." feels awkward. But how to introduce a person's race into the storyline? If I just say dark brown skin, then she could be a person with a tan, or Spanish American, etc. But doing it like this also makes me edgy. Especially since the acceptable terms for describing a group of people tend to change every 5 years or so. So, if the novel were to get published, a term used in complimentary fashion when written can be re-interpreted years later to be a snub or worse.

Suggestions? How do good writers handle that type of thing?
Bear
(Ruth S)

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Finally!

Postby PamDavis » Wed Apr 14, 2010 6:50 am

I have not been able to log in all week. Scott helped me get back on. This is a great lesson, Jan. Back later....

Pam
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Postby glorybee » Wed Apr 14, 2010 8:50 am

To me, "Her dark brown, African American skin seemed to glow." feels awkward. But how to introduce a person's race into the storyline? If I just say dark brown skin, then she could be a person with a tan, or Spanish American, etc. But doing it like this also makes me edgy. Especially since the acceptable terms for describing a group of people tend to change every 5 years or so. So, if the novel were to get published, a term used in complimentary fashion when written can be re-interpreted years later to be a snub or worse.

Suggestions? How do good writers handle that type of thing?


That's a good question! It sounds awkward to me the way you've phrased it, too. I'd definitely leave out "African American", for the reasons you cite; it could make your story feel dated.

Have you read any of Lisa Samson's books? She frequently has characters of color (another phrase that may sound dated some day), and she establishes their ethnicity with a combination of factors--their dialect, their names, and physical description. She's an excellent writer--I highly recommend that you read some of her books and study her style of characterization.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Bear-Bear » Wed Apr 14, 2010 9:15 am

Use "dialect, names, and physical description" Got it!

No, I haven't read any of Samson's books. Bear walks in poverty and doesn't spend money on books, except for the most essential. I checked out Lisa's website, but none of her writing is posted there. (The web is where I get most my education and reading done.) :D

However, I think part of the problem is that I want readers to get an instant "photo type" picture of the character right from the start of the book. And from what you're saying, a more gradual opening of some of the character traits, as the story progresses, might be more effective.
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Homework Dear Abby Revised

Postby PamDavis » Wed Apr 14, 2010 9:57 am

Pushing back years of Nabal’s intimidation I resolve to change. Can’t even control himself! He won’t manipulate me anymore! My thoughts scatter with sand thrown by swiftly moving horses. Men are jostled as they approach our ranch. Strangers…. wonder who they are. Better move outa’sight. A meandering brook beckons to the carefree girl of my past. I raise my skirts high and skip upstream.

“Abby, were you listening?”

I turn to a herdsman and see death in his foreboding eyes.

“No, left when strangers got here. What’s wrong?”

“Your husband doesn’t have the sense to know that sharing with David’s men is no favor. His army will destroy us!”

Fear is vanquished. Boldness spurs me to action. A spirit of intoxicating purpose rushes through my veins.

“With God’s help we’ll stop David before he takes revenge! Hurry, gather provisions! I’ll deliver them and beg for mercy! ”


I have no specific ideas for coming lessons. Each week they seem to be just what I need. Your info about not including ages really frees me in my fictional book I'm working on.

Pam
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Postby glorybee » Wed Apr 14, 2010 10:14 am

Ruth, what about your public library, or your church library (or if your church doesn't have one, the library of any large church in your town)?

At any rate--the race of your characters can be established early, no matter what technique you use. In fact, if the character's race is significant in some way to the plot, it SHOULD be established early; it's disorienting for readers to have to mentally revise their picture of a character, especially if it's a major revision.

I just checked a few instances of character description in my brother's book, Thin Blue Smoke, which has a multi-racial cast of characters. Here is how he introduced 3 of his characters:

1. It was an unlikely friendship. Delbert Douglass Mersier III was a black man whose father had moved his family from Louisiana to Texas...

2. Behind the bar was a young black woman. When she heard Ferguson come in, she turned toward the door. Ferguson saw that she was about his age and that her skin was the deep, brown-red color of the cherries he loved back home...

3. ...a tall, skinny black man with a graying Afro stepped up to the cash register...

He used "black" in all of those descriptions--I'm not sure if that will sound dated in another decade or not.

I'd love to hear from any people of color who may be here on the boards. Thoughts?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Verna » Wed Apr 14, 2010 10:19 am

Jan, I'm so glad you're back with your enlightening lessons for beginners and seasoned writers alike. I found an example from my writing to illustrate how to do this incorrectly. :)

Monster under the Bed

“Mommy, Mommy, I’m scared!”

Lynn climbed through a fog of deep sleep to see four-year-old Michael standing by her bed. The moonlight filtered through the blinds to turn his blond hair into a golden crown and the tears on his cheeks into crystal drops.

...Later in the story, when his little feet pad beside her big ones, and he sits on her lap, the reader can figure out he's not a teen, if he or she hadn't already picked that out from the title and the first line :)
Verna

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Proverb 17:22

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Postby glorybee » Wed Apr 14, 2010 10:21 am

Pam, your snippet definitely made me want to read more! Your Abby is definitely an intriguing, complex character.

My only problem with your little story was the setting--it seems to be based on the Biblical story in 1 Samuel, but words like ranch, skirts, outta, and Abby made me think of the old West.

If it's part of a larger work that intentionally sets that story in another setting--great! What a cool idea! Otherwise, you might want to be careful with dialect and vocabulary that are wrong for the setting.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Wed Apr 14, 2010 10:24 am

Verna, thanks for being willing to post that example. It's exactly what I meant! (And just think--if you'd taken "four-year-old" out of that sentence, you'd have gained three whole words!)
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Verna » Wed Apr 14, 2010 10:27 am

Ahh, Jan, with my short metrical feet, I don't need more words. I'm already the "sole of brevity." :)
Verna

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine...
Proverb 17:22

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Postby Bear-Bear » Wed Apr 14, 2010 9:37 pm

glorybee wrote:Ruth, what about your public library, or your church library (or if your church doesn't have one, the library of any large church in your town)?


:!: Libraries! I had forgotten about libraries, I've so gotten into the habit of finding things on the Net. I've written "Samson" down on my next town list, to check into it.

glorybee wrote:1. It was an unlikely friendship. Delbert Douglass Mersier III was a black man whose father had moved his family from Louisiana to Texas...

2. Behind the bar was a young black woman. When she heard Ferguson come in, she turned toward the door. Ferguson saw that she was about his age and that her skin was the deep, brown-red color of the cherries he loved back home...

3. ...a tall, skinny black man with a graying Afro stepped up to the cash register...

He used "black" in all of those descriptions--I'm not sure if that will sound dated in another decade or not.


That definitely sounds better than my "African American" in all cases. And I'm beginning to suspect that it's best just to use the current best-term, as your brother did, and let future readers make whatever mental adjustments they need to, to reconcile that. They'll know what year the book was written.

However, I'm even having trouble making that work in this particular instance. I tried "black youth", but that doesn't work in the same smooth way that "black woman" and "black man", (both currently common terms of reference), ... Nor does "black teen", or "black girl".

A black youth, Wanda's dark brown skin seemed to glow with enthusiasm. She bounded over to the bottom of the ladder, looking up at Dan, eyes full of joy. During volleyball season last term, she'd been fighting a shin injury the doctor couldn't diagnose.


When Bear gets stuck over stuff like this, she wonders why she ever wanted to try and be a writer in the first place. It seems like this shouldn't be that hard to figure out. :roll:
Bear
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Postby glorybee » Wed Apr 14, 2010 10:14 pm

Ruth, I think you could just open with "Wanda's dark brown skin..." That's pretty definitive--she could possibly be from India or a few other places, but most people will take the more obvious road. If you think there may be doubt, bring it up in a few other ways as the story unfolds.
Jan Ackerson

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New Character

Postby flyingcross » Wed Apr 14, 2010 10:28 pm

Hi Jan,

My sister loves Jan Karon, and I'll have to say, there are some wonderful characters in them.

My new character.

Her glassy eyes took in nothing of the television that blared in front of her. This was her life, her choice, to drink to survive the onslaught of anxiety. It had brought her to this couch, this room, where no one else wanted to be. All she wanted was to be loved, and the only way she’d found it was by drinking. It just never ended up being love. Her slurred speech as she answered the phone told her daughter all she needed to know.
“Mom, I love you. Let me know when you’d like to come out. We’ve got a room for you whenever you decide to come.”
She hung up the phone, crying. She wanted to go, but she couldn’t go without a drink now. She had lost her family even though they wanted her as badly as she wanted them.

Thanks,
Cindy

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Postby Bear-Bear » Wed Apr 14, 2010 10:49 pm

OK. Thanks, Jan! :D
Bear
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"40 Writing Challenges Goal" progress: 9 done

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Postby FreedomWriter » Thu Apr 15, 2010 5:07 am

Now, I am left wondering. I was just getting used to "Joey said."
Now, he is stashing a frog in his overalls.
Of the two, which one is better?
-Rikki
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
Jeremiah 29:11

Started my very long journey May 29th 2012 toward continued education.
Destination: Doctor of Psychology.

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