Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Les Edgerton

Let’s approach a study of the short story with the most important and crucial element - the characters. Primarily, because of the length of this form (short story) we will concentrate on the principle character, since short stories are normally about only one or two central characters, as a rule. Space simply doesn’t allow for many more in most such stories.

This is a little bit of a different approach to writing fiction. Many studies begin with a plot. Plot is important, certainly, but character in stories is at least equally important. To give you an idea of where we’re going, we’re going to come up with a primary character first and then start him or her off in some kind of trouble. If you analyze stories, I think you’ll find most of them constructed this way.

There are three basic kinds of characters found in short stories -- Individual, Typical and Universal characters. At this point, we’re going to concentrate on an Individual character. Typical and Universal characters are self-explanatory, in most respects, and generally are minor characters in most stories. For the purposes of this lesson, we want to “cast our lead”; therefore, we will create an individual character.

There are five methods of presenting characters in fiction. The indirect method is called authorial interpretation, which is simply “telling” the reader the character’s background, motives, values, virtues and so on. There is a big advantage in describing a character this way because you can cover a lot of material quickly, to let us know what you want about the character, to move about in time and space at will, and to tell us what he or she feels.

An example of authorial interpretation would be like this description in Tony Ardizzone’s short story, “Baseball Fever” from his collection Taking It Home

“Mickey Meenan was a very quiet kid, and most of the time he was around you didn’t even notice he was there. He was tall for a third grader, gawky, spotted everywhere you could see with freckles, and he’d pick his earwax with his little finger or a stick and then stare at it for so long he made you ask him what was he going to do with it. “I dunno,” he’d always say, and then he’d always eat it or wipe it on his pants leg and then start working on his other ear. All the kids thought he was spoiled because he was an only child. Really, we were jealous. Mickey had a hundred toys, none of them broken; a thousand comic books, not one page torn.”

The four methods of direct presentation are appearance, speech, action,  and thought. In this space, we’ll talk about appearance because our sight is our most acute sense and we get more information from sight than any of the other senses. Here’s an example of an appearance description:

“Mrs. Withers, the dietician, marched in through the back door, drew up, and scanned the room. She wore her usual Betty Grable hairdo and open-toed pumps, and her shoulder had an aura of shoulder pads even in a sleeveless dress.” This is from Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman.

Do you see how each of these two examples work in rendering a picture of the character to us, the reader? For a valuable exercise, use one or both of these methods and create a character sketch of 1-3 paragraphs.
And also, did you notice in these two examples that both protagonists start out in the story at odds with their surroundings? This is what I mean, in part, by “getting our characters in trouble.”

If you think about all the great stories you’ve read in your lifetime, the main thing I'll bet money you remember most are the characters. Huck Finn, Meursault, Porfiry, Scrooge and Lear...the list is endless. We all have our own examples. Many times, writers are focused on the plot, believing that to be the most important part of a story. Au contraire! Plot is important but almost always takes a back seat to characters, except in lesser stories. The higher quality the piece in fact, the lesser value is assigned to plot and the more to character. Literature of quality, regardless of the genre, is defined by how it illuminates character and how it shows us a facet of the human condition, either in a new and novel way or explores the nooks and crannies of the human psyche heretofore unexplored or in sufficient depth to provide a clearer understanding. Stories that last are almost always interested in developing memorable characters. That is why we remember the character long after we have forgotten what it was exactly that they did. Beginning writers of genre fiction, say, science fiction, sometimes mistakenly believe the story is in the new and novel technology they are going to bring forth. A very wrong impression. All good stories, regardless of genre, are ultimately about people almost exclusively. The technology, in the sci-fi example, is merely the setting and may help advance the plot, but the central focus should always be on the folks in the story--what happens to them and how they react and what they learn from the event or situation or crisis.

As Janet Burroway states in her excellent book,  Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, “Human character is in the foreground of all fiction, however the humanity might be disguised. Anthropomorphism may be a scientific sin, but it is a literary necessity. Bugs Bunny isn’t a rabbit; he’s a plucky youth in ears. The romantic heroes of Watership Down are out of the Arthurian tradition, not out of the hutch.”

Therefore, we are going to begin with a character, preferably the principle character you’re going to use in your story. You might want to draw up a biographical sketch of a character you wish to write a story about. This should be the principle character you will build your story around. Include things like their religion, their upbringing, their hobbies, their avocations, their vocations, their education, their political point of view--in short, everything that might be revealing of their persona. Include a physical description as well. Age, sex, all those things that are important. What we’re after is a composite of a character that will make that person seem “real” to you and ultimately the reader. The more details you can provide, the better. For instance, does your character have a facial tic that becomes prominent when he/she is in a stressful situation? Does he/she become sexually aroused at the sounds of pigeons cooing...and where did that stimulus derive from, what incident in his or her history? The more you know about a character, the more realistic will he or she be drawn. That doesn’t mean all or even any of this will appear in the story. Just the fact that you know it will provide the necessary verisimilitude to give the reader a believable character. Put some time into creating a name for your character. Names tell us a lot about the person in fiction. Try and use one or two of the methods of character presentation I talked about earlier. You won’t necessarily use all or even most of these details in your actual story, but the more fully-realized the character is in your own mind, the “realer” the character will come across in your writing.

“God is in the details”, someone once said, and this is indeed true in writing stories. (The devil is also in the details…)

Perhaps the best method in creating stories is to first create a character you are interested in and set him or her in motion. Once we have our character, our next move is to begin a story with that character in some kind of trouble, either minor or major and that is the way most stories are created.

This leads us to a valuable exercise in not only creating characters but in making them effective and realistic protagonists on the page. A good friend of mine, Jane Bradley, author of Power Lines and Living Doll, came up with this exercise while on a motor trip with her young daughter. They would pick out something they would see as their car hurtled down the highway or driving through an ordinary neighborhood and then describe it through the eyes of the various characters they chose. For example, a setting sun might appear as an egg about to be dropped into a skillet by a starving woman. The same sun might appear to be a Spanish doubloon to a treasure hunter. Then, they would describe a whole scene through that person’s eyes. A cable TV installer might look for cable wires when viewing a normal neighborhood, while someone who sold windows might concentrate exclusively on what the windows looked like. A pervert might notice primarily which yards contained tricycles. Get the idea? Once you start looking at ordinary scenes through the eyes of your characters they become particular to that character and the story you’re writing. It’s an extremely effective exercise and can get you into your character’s head almost immediately and the knowledge you will gain from seeing your universe from the character’s pov will be invaluable in drawing realistic and believable characters. I am going to ask each of you to look at an ordinary scene, perhaps something you look at every day--a drive to work or school or to the store, for example--and describe that scene through the eyes of your character. Write 2-3 paragraphs of what your character sees. This is not what you see; it's what your character would notice. Again, this is just something I think you will find valuable in getting into the "head" of your character.

I used an exercise that was very helpful in my “on-ground” creative writing classes to my writing students. I’d write a whole bunch of different personas on pieces of paper and give them to my students. They would include such beings as: a German shepherd, a nun, a pimp, a newly-divorced woman, an engineer, a just-arrived immigrant from Ghana, a blind man, a deaf woman, an Amish preteen girl on her first visit away from the farm, an escaped convict… you get the idea. I’d come up with a different one for each member of the class. I’d pass them out to the students, making sure they understood they weren’t to reveal to their classmates what their persona was, and then send them out onto the campus grounds and ask them to write a brief description from that persona’s pov of what they saw. When they returned, they would then read their descriptions and the rest of the class would guess who or what they were. It’s truly a great exercise. It reveals that we all—because of a host of factors—what age or sex or culture or vocation or whatever—all have selective sight. A social worker walking down a neighborhood street might notice the tricycle in the uncut front yard of a home and the bag of empty whiskey bottles waiting to be picked up, while a siding salesman would be “blind” to that and only “see” the house next door to it with the framing faded, obviously needing new siding. That kind of thing. The German shepherd might notice the fire hydrants, while the Amish girl might notice the clothes of the other girls. You get the idea. Those of you who teach writing or English, try this and I think you’ll be very pleased at the results. Also, this is a great exercise to do yourself when writing a character in your stories. I often do this when I’m writing a novel. If I’ve got a burglar in the book, for instance, I take a drive or a walk around the neighborhood, trying to see it through a burglar’s eyes. (Not that hard, in my case…). I look for houses where no cars are visible, houses where three days of newspapers are on the lawn, where the mailbox seems to be stuffed… that kind of thing. If I’m writing a character who’s a fireman, I look for houses where trash is stacked up against the garage, or where the wiring leading into a house appears to be frayed. We all see the same scene but only see those things that pertain to us and the rest are invisible to us.

Another element which I’d like to introduce in this lesson to get us all off to a good start is a good opening to your stories. Many times, the impetus to writing a good story is writing a good first line or beginning. While there are no rules in writing openings, there are strong opinions over what doesn’t work. Author Harry Crews, for example, believes a writer should never begin a story with a line of dialogue, feeling the practice creates no tension and is therefore entirely without drama. He says that the only character in a story who has to be introduced in a vacuum is the first one that appears and if that character speaks before he or she is introduced through an action or description, you have “a vacuum speaking into a vacuum.” I happen agree with his view, even though I’m sure someone will be able to produce an example that goes against this wisdom.

Another mistake in beginnings among younger writers (in experience, not age) is starting their stories at the beginning of the day, often with an alarm clock ringing. Writer Debra Sparks feels such writers don’t realize most of the time that “a lot has already happened when the story began.”

Rick Bass observes that the voice of the story is established immediately in the beginnings of good stories. “The possibility of everything that’s going to happen is contained in that first sentence,” he states, agreeing with Roman poet Ovid, who said that writers should attempt “to say at once what ought at once to be said.” Too often, beginning writers take too long to get to the actual story, writing pages of setting and/or description or "backstory". By the time they’ve gotten to the actual “story” the reader is long gone.

Of course, at this early date you may have little idea of where your story is going to end up at, and it is because of this that beginnings change during the rewrite. But, let’s pretend we know where they are going, to start with, and if the story changes direction we can always go back in the rewrite stage and rewrite them.

Novelist Richard Ford opines that the beginning of a story is like meeting someone. “What you respond to is a person’s confidence”, and your (reader’s) intuition that “the meeting will somehow be consequential.” Ford calls the beginning sentences, “setting the world.” “It has to have an initial power,” says Mark Helprin. “Then the power of whatever you start with has to be maintained.”

So, all an opening sentence or paragraph has to contain is voice, confidence and power. Easy! Well, not exactly, not always, but important enough to spend time on, perhaps more time than some of the other parts of the story. For practical purposes, for those of you wishing to become published, opening sentences are crucial. Editors are mean little critters, just waiting for a chance to say no to a story and if it doesn’t hook them almost immediately, they’re off to the next one. Well, they’re not all “mean little critters”, but even the nice ones have that in common. In my former role as an editor of the ligmag The Crescent Review, my own experience was that if I wasn’t grabbed by the end of the first paragraph, it's going to be hard to sell me the story from then on. I did read all the stories sent me, but many editors don't go beyond the first paragraph or two. Just one of those harsh facts of life!

The fun of writing stories that start out in the right place and maintain their power to the end comes from plain hard work, usually from writing and rewriting. As Melanie Rae Thon says, “You’re going to be waiting until you’re a dead person if you wait for the muse to visit.”

Hope this helps!


Helen Ginger said...

Excellent class here today. Even after reading the entire post, I still have a vivid picture of Mickey in my head. For me, the key was the four words "he'd always eat it." That put an image in my head that, try as I might, I can't purge.

Thanks Les.

Straight From Hel

Les Edgerton said...

Tony Ardizzone is an old and good friend and I love his writing. I'm like you--I read that story when I was in the MFA program at Vermont College and hanging out with Tony and it's stuck with me forever. He's got such a droll way of describing characters that stays with you!