November 15, 2013

How to Know that Jim Hates Spiders

        Yesterday I visited a group of fourth graders to talk to them about writing well-rounded characters.  One of the big points I try to make is the ever-popular “show, don’t tell” - that they need to let their readers get to know the characters in their stories the way you get to know real people in real life.  For this point I start by introducing myself to the kids.
I say, “We’re just meeting each other now.  What would you think if I introduced myself like this:  Hello; I’m 43 years old, and my favorite colors are yellow, green, and red; I don’t really like cooking but I do like to bake; I play the cello but I’m kind of out of practice; I don’t like scary or violent movies; I have two parents, two brothers, two children, a husband, and a cat; I’m a bit shy; I’m 5 feet 4 inches tall and I never wear high heels; and I love potato soup, big words, and daffodils.  It’s nice to meet you!”
        That always makes them laugh.  That would be pretty weird, they agree.  But that’s what it’s like if they start their stories with a big lump of telling the reader all about their character.  I go on to say, “When you meet someone in real life, that’s not how you learn what kind of person they are, is it?  So, how do you get to know a person in real life?”  Together we come up with ideas… What they look like, What they say, What they do, What other people say about them…  And it all happens over time, not all at once.  I read an excerpt from one of my books and ask them what they know about the characters from that passage.  I point out that I never actually told them that Sam likes to do research or that Kate sticks up for her friends, but they figure it out for themselves because I showed them the children doing it.
        Then I give them an example to try themselves.  In the story you’re writing, your character is going to have to pick up a tarantula.  What can you do instead of waiting until he sees the tarantula then telling the reader, “Ever since he was little, he’d always really hated spiders”?  The kids are full of good ideas: have him scream when he sees it, or describe how his hand is shaking, or say he feels knots in his stomach, or have another character say something about it, or…  Those are all great ideas, but I keep pushing them, and eventually one of those kids will realize - You don’t have to wait until he sees the tarantula and then tell the reader.  You can find an opportunity to show the reader earlier in the story so that by the time the tarantula incident comes along the reader already knows how scary and hard this is going to be for our character.  Then the kids get really excited, because this opens up all sorts of new possibilities.  At some point in the story our character could refuse to go into the basement because there are too many spiders there!  He could find a spider in his bed and freak out!  He could ask a friend to get rid of a spider for him because he doesn’t want to touch it!
        It’s a lot of fun, and I hope the children will remember some of this and start to view their characters as people instead of puppets, and their writing as an interesting puzzle and an exciting adventure instead of a dull, compulsory chore.

[Pictures: L’étranger (The Stranger), woodcut by Félix Vallotton, 1894 (Image from Art Tattler);
Little Miss Muffet, rubber block print by AEGN, 2002.]


Pax said...

Great blog and a very cool way to think about writing fiction. I wonder if it might also work when writing non-fiction, such as history or biography? Hmmmmm. I wish we'd had an author visit us when I was in fourth grade.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

I would think the same principles would definitely apply when writing non-fiction like biography. The only hitch is that in fiction you get to make up the earlier spider encounter, whereas in non-fiction you're unlikely to know smaller incidents like that about your subject. But I definitely believe that the more you can embed your information in story, the more likely it is that readers will get engaged in the subject.