We’ve given 13 of our posts the “characters” label--we’ve examined antagonists, minor characters, contrasting characters, character development, character wants vs. needs, putting characters under pressure, and differentiating characters through dialogue, among other character-related topics. But no matter how many times and how many ways we look at character, it seems there’s always something new to learn about character from great writers.
One of the many qualities of Karen Cushman’s writing that intrigues me is the power and immediacy of her characters. I wondered: how does Cushman entice me to care so keenly about Meggy? In rereading Alchemy and Meggy Swann, I looked for clues that might help me portray vivid characters in my own writing.
In the same way that Cushman describes the setting of Elizabethan London using various ways (the five senses, contrast, lists, and language), she defines Meggy’s problems and strengths in various ways. Cushman uses repetition, dialogue, and the five senses to clarify Meggy’s problems, and she uses action, memories and dreams to clarify Meggy’s strengths.
Meggy’s first problem is that she is alone. Her opening exclamation is a response to her aloneness:
“Ye toads and vipers,” the girl said, as her granny often had, “Ye toads and vipers,” and she snuffled a great sniffle that echoed in the empty room. She was alone…” (p.1)
Farther down the page, “alone” is echoed:
She was alone, with no one to sustain or support her.
"Alone" is echoed again in the same paragraph:
Belike Louise was on her way back out of the town with the carter, leaving the girl here frightened and hungry and alone. (p. 1-2)
And it is reechoed again, at the end of the chapter:
The dark, the cold, the strange noises, the unfriendly man who had judged her, found her wanting, and left her alone— (p. 6)
The repetition of “alone” tolls like a bell, reminding us of Meggy’s aloneness.
Meggy has another problem: she’s hungry. Although we’re told that she’s hungry (“frightened and hungry and alone”), her hunger is emphasized as we listen to her interact with other characters through dialogue. She calls to Roger:
“You cannot abandon me here. What am I to do here? Who will tend to me? And fetch me things to eat?” (p. 11)She adds:
“You will have to fetch me food.” (p. 12)Hearing her desperate pleas for food in her own words emphasizes the intensity of her problem.
The five senses
By using the five senses to describe Meggy’s pain and sadness, Cushman engages readers directly—we see her tears:
…tears left shining tracks like spider threads on her cheeks (p. 2),touch and taste them:
…she could not dash the tears away. They felt sticky on her lips, and salty. (p. 3);hear her singing:
…she sang, but the sound of her trembly voice in the empty room was so mournful that she stopped and sat silent while darkness grew.” (p. 4)and smell what comforts her:
she breathed in the familiar smell of goose and grew sleepy. (p. 6).The strong sensory images connect us viscerally to Meggy.
Meggy’s transformations from hunger to eating, from loneliness to neighborliness, from pain to strength, all begin with action. Driven by hunger, Meggy sets out to buy food.
A rumble from her belly finally sent Meggy reaching for her walking sticks. (p. 24)At the end of this venture she takes the initiative to introduce herself to the friendly cooper:
“Margret Swann, if it please you.” Then, surprising herself, she added, “Called Meggy, if you will.” (p. 31)Meggy’s actions continue to get her what she longs for—friendship:
“Nay, you have a friend” (p. 57),food:
She sat down at the table and feasted on chicken and apple cake (p. 60),and strength:
"I will stand, Master Printer. I am not breakable, and I be stronger than I look." And to her surprise, she realized she was. (p. 87)
In addition to action, Meggy’s memories are sources of her strength. Memories of her gran give her empathy for others and “ease her spirit.”
Her gran, soft and warm and smelling of meadow grasses and ale, had cooed at her so and sung her to sleep. Meggy let the little girls snuggle up against her, which eased her spirit just as the drink eased her bones. (p. 51)
Meggy’s dreams lead directly to her transformation.
In her dreams she danced and ran, but only in her dreams. (p. 29)Suffice it to say, for those who haven’t yet finished the book, that transformation grows from Meggy’s actions, as well from the memories of her loving gran, and from her own dreams.
StorySleuths’ Tip # 86--Use all the tools in your writer’s toolbox to create complex and believable characters—including repetition, dialogue, the five senses, action, the character’s memories, and the character’s dreams, to make even radical transformation believable to readers.