Last night was Teen Writing Class night, and this week we discussed the craft of characterization. I am enjoying this process of teaching narrative and fiction writing techniques and terms. The students are remarkable writers–open, observant, funny. Teaching also forces me to write examples, and I’ve been rather amused by the characters and scenes that have popped out of my subconscious with just the teeniest prodding around in the psychic storeroom.
Following is a short scene showing characterization techniques–dialogue, vivid verbs, and sensory details. Mostly we hear the character’s voice, though, and I think we learn quite a bit about Penelope Perry just by listening to what she has to say. Also note that we don’t know much about the narrator. He or she is a classmate of Penelope’s, that much we can gather from his/her point of view, but everything else about him or her is still hidden in that storeroom of story ideas in my subconscious.
If I wanted, I could probably dig a little deeper, find some more pieces of the story, and put it all together. I have a feeling, though, that frantic Penelope is seeing the light of day for the first and last time this week.
Back she’ll go to whatever dusty shelf in the storeroom she has been languishing for who knows how long. Perhaps since my own elementary school days? Maybe she’ll be tossed into the recycle bin someday, emerging in another form in another story, and maybe not. Who knows? The truth is, we don’t really know where stories come from. They are just there, waiting for us to find the pieces and put them together. If the end product is sturdy enough, it will last for centuries (think Shakespeare and Dante). If not, well . . . at least Penelope had her moment in the sun.
Penelope Perry’s hand shot up into the air as soon as Ms. Walker swooshed through the classroom door after recess.
“Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh!” Penelope bounced around in her seat, a pink-cheeked, over-pressurized steam-engine about to blow. The rest of us slouched behind our desks and glared at her, but, as usual, she was oblivious.
“Yes, Penelope? What is it now?” Ms. Walker exhaled as she spoke and her eyes slid toward the clock.
Penelope sat with both palms flat on the table, elbows jutting out to the sides. You could see her arms shake with barely-repressed excitement. Her knees bounced up and down beneath her desk as she spoke in her girly-girl-goody-two-shoes voice. “I know you said we weren’t supposed to touch the goldfish, Ms. Walker. So I thought you should know that Timmy Landry stuck his hand in there and grabbed the fish which is now floating on top of the water and I think its dead and you’d probably want to know that. Plus, Marissa and Lolly were fighting over who had the prettiest pencil eraser–Marissa said pink and Lolly said green–and Marissa called Lolly a swear which I won’t repeat because I know you don’t want us to say swears in your classroom. And then Derek called Marissa a swear and I had to cover my ears because it was a really, really bad word and my mother would be mad if she found out. I’ll probably have to tell her when I get home and she’ll call the principal.” Penelope took a breath and then she was chugging off again, her voice rising higher with every word. Her eyes widened. “And I’m pretty sure how you feel about kissing, Ms. Walker, so Colin and Tami really shouldn’t have gone into the art room closet when the were supposed to be taking a note to the office for you. And . . .”
“Enough!” Ms. Walker held up a large, firm hand. “That’s quite enough, Penelope.” She lowered her voice to a near whisper. “Class, please take out your math books and start working on page 56. I need to take a look at that fish.”
Creating multidimensional characters is challenging. Listening to conversations, taking in the rhythm of speech, observing people’s unique ticks and habits, analyzing body language that demonstrates inner emotional landscapes, trying hard to be honest about what we see, hear, know about people–these practices help us to write characters that are vivid, sympathetic, real.
Listen. Practice. Stretch. Work. If you do those four things, you’ll get better.
If you’d like to read the entire lesson, please click HERE. Or you can find it under the Teen Writing Class tab at the top of the page. Remember, to be a writer all you really need is a notebook, a pen, and a block of uninterrupted writing time a day. Go ahead. Be a writer. I dare you . . . Outside the Box.