Wednesday, August 19, 2009

creating characters

Last night I finished one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time. It’s The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I’m sure it resonated with me because, like the author, I grew up in the South in the 60’s. Of course, I was in North Carolina while she was in Mississippi, and my family had only occasional help, not the full time maids/nannies that she describes. But also like the author, I suffered from the confusion of that period. As I youngster, I learned to love people based on my own personal interactions with them – did they love and respect me and could I love and respect them. That was far more important than the color of their skin or their station in life. But I saw others around me who tried to teach a different message. I remember being thoroughly perplexed by going to church where they taught that Jesus loved us all (and of course, to the literal minded child, me, that meant everyone) only to find those same people walking out of church and espousing, or even worse, practicing something entirely different.

Ms. Stockett made me think and she brought back a lot of memories for me, most pleasant but some very sad and still very raw. But the reason I wanted to blog about this book is not the subject matter but the incredible writing talent this author demonstrates. The novel has three main characters, Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter. Each has a very distinct and different personality. Aibileen is loving and giving and has a calming influence. Minny is angry and hurt and has steeled herself in order to cope with life. Miss Skeeter, well, I’ll let you see for yourself, how she gradually has her eyes opened and grows to come into her own.

Each of these characters comes to life immediately upon the page of this book when she is introduced and remains consistent with her core throughout. Each of them changes, but never in a way that seems forced or unreal or inconsistent with her character. Other authors write memorable characters, this is true, but what Ms. Stockett seems to excel at here is the ability to capture a unique voice for each character, so it’s not just her telling us about them that makes them come to life, but it is their own words. She has developed a fresh sound for each which incorporates the characters’ language (word choice as well as pronunciation quirks), style and even cadence. It’s a remarkable skill for an author to acquire and seeing it in action is one of those things that can send an agent to literary nirvana.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Showing vs. Telling

“Show, don’t tell!” is undoubtedly one of the most oft-repeated adages of writing. It’s a catchphrase of English teachers and critique groups alike, often found scrawled in red ink in the margins of manuscripts. And although it might be tempting to shrug it off as just another cliché, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a moment to ponder what it really means in the context of writing fiction.

For example, consider these two examples of a woman’s reaction to learning she didn’t get the job offer she was hoping for:

Still unemployed, after all, she realized, feeling crushed.

Still unemployed after all, she told herself, fighting the urge to fling her brand-new Marc Jacobs heels across the room.

Okay, contrived, but it was the best I could come up with as I sat on the Metro on my way to work this morning. But notice how the first example focuses on feelings, while the second focuses on actions (or okay, maybe a feeling regarding a particular action). The crushing disappointment is effectively conveyed without having to use the word “crushed” at all. You don’t have to always tell your readers how your character feels; they’d much rather figure it out based on a few strategically placed clues.

This brings me to another trap I often see writers fall into—the Trap of Excessive Modifiers. Don’t get me wrong—I love words, and I’m a frequent victim myself. The English language is a gold mine of vivid words, each with subtly different meanings and nuances, different tastes and textures. But sometimes when I’m reading, I have to stop a moment to count the number of adverbs encased in one paragraph, one sentence. It’s not uncommon to come across passages so littered with–lys that they outnumber all the other parts of speech combined. Do your future editors a favor and cull a few!

The point ultimately comes back to show, don’t tell. Strive to write vividly enough that your writing shows everything without needing all those telling modifiers.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

New Release

Today marks the release of Laurie Kingery's new book, The Outlaw's Lady. When rebellious rancher's daughter Tess Hennessy is kidnapped to photograph the Delgado gang's exploits, she finds her kidnapper, Sandoval Parrish, isn't just the mysterious outlaw rogue that she expected... Read more about it here. Congratulations, Laurie!