With this writing exercise, we are moving from Beginnings to Characterization.
Page 33 in the book.
This exercise is about choosing deliberate, specific details that reveal the essence of a character in amazing ways. Not only can these details tell us something about a character described, but about the character making these observations as well.
The authors provide a great example of these sort of critical and distinct details from Pam Houston’s story, “Highwater:”
“Besides drawing me a picture of Chuck’s fingers, Casey told me these things: Chuck used to be a junkie, but now he’s clean, he had a one-bedroom basement apartment and one hundred and twenty-seven compact disks, and he used moleskin condoms which don’t work as well but feel much better. This is what I told her about Richard: He put marinated asparagus into the salad, he used the expression ‘laissez-faire capitalist’ three times, once in a description of himself, he played a tape called ‘The Best of One Hundred and One Strings,’ and as far as I could tell, he’d never had oral sex.”
As we can see, an attribute about a character (or a real person, for that matter) such as, he puts marinated asparagus into salads, immediately tells us so much: this is a man who pays attention to the small technicalities, who takes pride in his work, and who is probably a great homemaker and entertainer. He’s not letting some iceberg salad with cherry tomatoes pass the bill as the salad entree. He steps it up.
Look at that salad pictured above. What kind of a man makes something like that? Most people can form a pretty clear image in the mind right away.
“The exercise: First work with a story that you’ve already written, one whose characters need fleshing out. Write the character’s name at the top of the page. Then fill in this sentence five or ten times: He (or she) is the sort of person who __________.
“For example: Meyer Wolfsheim is the sort of person who boasts of wearing human molars for cuff links.”
(Bonus points for you if you comment with what novel Meyer Wolfsheim is from.)
“Then determine which details add flesh and blood and heart to your characters. After you have selected the ‘telling’ detail, work it into your story more felicitously than merely saying, ‘She is the sort of person who. . .’ Put it in dialogue, or weave it into narrative summary. But use it.
“The objective: To learn to select revealing concrete details, details that sometimes tell us more than the character would want us to know. Evidence.”
Here are a few of their student examples:
“Philip is the sort of person for whom every transaction in life can be enacted with a Post-it Note.”
“Will Greene is the sort of person who always has to be the better-looking one in a relationship.”
“He is the sort of person people came to with their problems because they knew his answer would always be to share a joint.”
“Shelly Kim was the sort of girl who buttoned all her buttons.”
So, for my own example, I am going to use characters from my current novel. I’m going to do five statements for four folks.
- She is the sort of person who who solves all problems, from a hangnail to a car accident, with smoking pot.
- She is the sort of person who wishes desperately to be close with her sister, but insists on keeping her at an arm’s length.
- She is the type of young woman who still believes she can end up with her high school boyfriend.
- She is the type of girl who is immediately nervous if she isn’t the prettiest girl in the room.
- She is the type of cook who needs to line up all her ingredients beforehand, in order of what she’s using first.
- She is the sort of person who believes in and supports gay marriage, but she won’t herself come out of the closet.
- She was one of two people in her entire high school class who hadn’t tried drinking or smoking, and the other person was an exchange student who barely spoke English.
- She is the type of person who will fight to support her family even if she completely disagrees with what they’ve done.
- She is the sort of girl who, even if she didn’t need to wear glasses, would wear them anyway.
- She is the sort of person to dress up for school even when everyone else is wearing jeans.
- He is the sort of person who goes completely straight and sober when someone he loves dies of an overdose.
- He is the sort of student who won’t hesitate to correct the teacher.
- He is the sort of guy who would camp out in the woods for months waiting for a Big Foot sighting.
- He is the sort of person who would drop out of college if he got a decent job opportunity.
- He is the type of person who, if he won the lottery, would first worry about the taxes he’d have to pay on the winnings.
- She is the sort of parent who brings her son out to parade around guests, but ignores him when she’s home alone with him.
- She is the type of wife who will happily turn the other way at her husband’s nightly beer and porn activities, so long as he still gives her the monthly check.
- She is the type of person who will serve alcohol at an anti-drug campaign meeting.
- She is the sort of host who would serve dinner on cheap imitation china plates she bought on EBay, while boasting to her guests that they’re authentic, antique dishware.
- She is the sort of person to religiously attend Ladies Garden Club meetings, but hasn’t been to see her mother in the nursing home in seven years.