Wednesday, December 16, 2009

CHARACTER: A Season of Gifts

Hi Heather,

You tied setting up so neatly – thank you! In your post you mention Peck’s masterful way of creating settings using vivid descriptions. This made me think about the way he uses description to paint pictures of characters as well:

About Mrs. Wilcox: “Her eyes were all over the place, and her teeth came out to meet you.” (p. 47)

About Ruth Ann: “She was all eyes and mouth. Even her braids looked interested.” (p. 46)

About Roscoe: “He worked his chin from sideburn to sideburn with one of his big thorny hands and gave her a deep blue-and-green stare. It was like he’d never seen a girl before.” (p. 35)

When exploring character I came upon the web site of Rick Riordan, author of the enormously successful #1 New York Times bestselling Percy Jackson and the Olympians series for children, and the multi-award-winning Tres Navarre mystery series for adults. About describing characters Riordan says,

“Describe characters as Dickens did – with a single deft stroke. A laundry list of physical traits is realistic, but it is neither memorable nor compelling.”
When reading the writing of young kids, I find they are compelled to describe the character’s size, his eye color and the color of his hair. Always. And you know what? We grown-up writers do it, too. What we need to remember is that unless the description creates the character as a unique and memorable one—don’t bother. As you read or re-read A Season of Gifts, notice how Peck uses a few, very precise words to paint characters in a vivid, unforgettable way.

We have seen that both setting and character benefit from unique description, so is description the most important way to draw your character for your reader?

Back to Rick Riordan, who says this:

“Define a character through action, first. Through dialogue and description, second. Through explanation, never. The character should be primarily defined by the choices he makes, and the actions he takes. How does he respond to violence? How does he respond to love? Secondly, a character must be vividly but deftly describe through his speech, and through the initial view you give the. Never stop to explain who a character is when we can watch him in action and decide for ourselves.”

I will focus here on the character Mrs. Dowdel, and take a look at how action, description and dialogue create a complete picture of who she is. As for description, we first meet Mrs. Dowdel when we see her through Bob’s eyes:
“Every blazing morning she’d tramp off her back porch and down her garden rows with a hoe humped on her shoulder. Her straw hat looked like she’d swiped it off a mule. It hid her face except for her chins. She worked right through high noon in a fog of flies hoeing, yanking weeds, and talking to her tomato plants.

The heat slowed her some, and the flies. But she could be amazingly light on her big pins. We’d already seen her take a broom and swat the Fuller Brush man off her porch. She kept right at his heels till he was off her property.

As everybody knew, she didn’t neighbor and went to no known church.” (p. 6-7)
What have we learned? That Mrs. Dowdel is a larger-than-life kind of character, both physically and otherwise. She is independent. She is deliberate in her actions, and she cherishes her privacy to the point of having little to do with neighbors or church. We also know that Bob is new to town, and that the information about Mrs. Dowdel as a woman who keeps her distance from both neighbors and church comes from an outside source—“As everybody knew.”

 Now let’s take a look at how Peck sharpens our focus on Mrs. Dowdel through dialogue and action. When she discovers Bob in her privy Mrs. Dowdel takes him in and furnishes him with an outfit. Her actions contradict what Bob has come to know about her. Her actions speak of a woman who is, in fact, quite neighborly. Sending Bob home in the hand-me-down clothes of her grandson Mrs. Dowdel says, “I’ve got me a spare jar of apple butter. . .And I baked today. You can take the loaf to your Maw. Tell her you found it on the porch.” (p. 30)

Mrs. Dowdel doesn’t just give Bob any old clothes to go home in, she gives him treasured belongings of a young man who clearly meant a great deal to her. She doesn’t send him home with one of the half-dozen loaves of bread she baked today—she tells him to take “the loaf”—probably her only one. And she doesn't want any recognition for her kindness--she is selfless on top of everything else.

The old adage “actions speak louder than words” is a key one to remember when creating memorable characters. Throughout A Season of Gifts Mrs. Dowdel’s actions and her dialogue speak louder than any narrative description could. Her kindness toward Ruth Ann and Mrs. Wilcox. Her effort to see that justice is served to Roscoe Burdick. The funeral, and then the wedding that put Bob’s father’s church on the map. These all betray a big-hearted woman who watches out for her neighbors with a rough-edged tenderness.

StorySleuth’s tip #34: I cannot say it any better than Rick Riordan does: “Define a character through action, first. Through dialogue and description, second. Through explanation, never.”