So, as many of you know, I had a BIG birthday this week.
And what better birthday week present than to have an author participate here on my blog whose work I not only admire, but also read aloud to my own boys when they were younger!
Talk about the perks of becoming a published writer...
When Avi offered to guest host a Friday Feedback, I thought (omg! omg!) what to ask him to talk about?!?! I scrolled through his blog -- which is rich with wonderful writing information, by the way) and came across a version of this post he shares below here on Character Building. It so resonated with me, that I asked if we could head in that direction.
This was weeks ago, and, so, I was particularly excited when, last Friday, the issue came up in the comments about a character describing himself by looking in the mirror.
Like starting a story with the weather or a character waking up from a dream, it is, of course, a "common-wisdom-says" no-no to have a character describe him or her self using this technique. As I wrote in the comments, however, I have mixed feelings about this hard rule against (and most hard and fast rules for or against anything). I do believe there are times when a character -- especially a teen girl -- will look at her image in the mirror and react to what she (or she) sees, and that this action, and its reveal (the character's subjective perspective on what she sees), is right and organic for the story.
|From The Summer of Letting Go. |
My editor left it in, so I assume she was okay with it too.
It did get me thinking again about how hard it is to describe a character well, to figure out the right amount of description and make it occur organically.
When it comes to a character's physical description:
- How much is good and needed?
- How much should a writer leave to the reader to fill in? And,
- Even if you don't describe your character to a great degree in your story, do you, the writer, need to know what he or she looks like in detail, in order for that character to feel authentic and come alive on the page?
Algonquin Young Readers. You'll learn more about the story below in his post!
As always, I hope you will pick up the book when it comes out and share it with your students in your classroom!
So, without further ado, here's Avi.
Of all my books, Bright Shadow, took the longest to write—fourteen years.
Of course, I did not work on it continually all those years, but picked up, put it down, until, finally, it was done. I was rather obsessed with it, a medieval fantasy, about a girl who is given—without her knowing it—five wishes. In the text, there is very little physical description of the girl.
A few months prior to the publication of the book, I dropped into my editor’s office. “So glad you came by. We just got the art for the cover of Bright Shadow.” He held it up. I looked at it. My instantaneous thought was, That’s not her nose.
I am not aware that I ever thought of her nose before—nor did that nose have any consequence for the story-- but unconsciously, I must have pictured her because, the artist had not depicted her nose as I had imagined it.
Did I say anything to my editor? No. I felt silly. But I do believe that knowing—albeit unconsciously—what my character looked like, helped me write that book.
I thought about this because my next book, Catch You Later, Traitor, will be published early next year. It is, as they say, in production. The story is told by Pete, in the first person. Just recently, I received this note from my editor’s assistant:
“One more thing: Our art director has asked me for a physical description of Pete, to give to the jacket illustrator. I’m looking through the manuscript and not finding anything too specific. Would you mind letting me know how you picture Pete?”
In other words, though this book has been in my head—and on paper--for something like eight years, actively working on it for four years, only then was I required to think (consciously) what my lead character looks like.
I quickly wrote back (note: the story is set in 1951):
“He’s 12 years old, just about to go into his growth spurt. (His best friend, Kat, the girl in the story, is taller than he is.) But at the moment, his is youthful looking, not particularly adolescent. Rather innocent, in fact, though on the edge of growing older. Stands tall. Wants to be tall. No slouch. Wishes his voice was lower. I’d bet his hands seem a little big, likewise feet, but not his ears. Nose, blunt, round. Round cheeks. His eyes are dark and that is the most intense aspect about him. He looks at things, people. Curious. He will be tall, (taller than his father) and on the slim side, long faced. He would like to look like a lean, hard faced movie detective…but won’t, ever. Black hair. Curly. Not particularly neat in dress or hair. Wears Converse sneakers. Lumpy vest sweaters his grandmother knits. Collared shirts. No t-shirts to school. Might have a denim Eisenhower jacket. There is nothing athletic about him—but he enjoys playing sports, punch ball, dodge ball, stoop ball—city sports. He’s a reader, but does not wear eyeglasses. There are not many laughs in the book, but I bet he has a good grin, and he likes jokes. When he is worried, it is obvious.”My point is this: knowing your character outside your book will help you write about him—or her—inside the book.
So, given that it's Friday Feedback, let's think and post about character today: Either a literal moment of character description that you're working with or trying to get right, or a section where you're hoping your outside knowledge of your character's physicality will help you get the inside passage right. See, as you read Avi's excerpt, if you can feel how his knowing his character physically helped him to develop the character's personality.
And, please remember the RULES: What works first, what doesn't if something doesn't, and keep it short, please. NO MORE than 5 paragraphs if short, or 3 paras. if they are long.
My huge thanks to Avi for being here.
Now, the first few paragraphs from Catch You Later, Traitor. Enjoy!
Catch You Later, Traitor
The way I see it, I stopped being a kid on April 12, 1951.
That afternoon we were playing our regular afternoon recess punch ball game out in the schoolyard. I was about to smack the ball when Big Toby, who always played catcher, muttered, “Hey, Pete, that true about your parents?”
I looked over my shoulder. “What?”
“Is what Donavan said about your parents true?”
I stared at him as if he had walked off a flying saucer. Why would Mr. Donavan--our seventh grade teacher--say anything about my parents? And how come I hadn’t heard?
“Come on, Collison,” Hank Sibley yelled at me. He was near second base, which was someone’s sweater. “Stop gabbing. Recess almost up.”
He blew a huge bubble with his gum that popped as I punched a shot inside third.
Kat, the only girl playing, raced home.
Our schoolyard was cement, which meant if you slid home, you’d peel off your skin. So no sliding allowed. Anyway, Kat stomped on her geography text—our home plate--and yelled “Dodgers win!” well before the ball was thrown home.
Grinning, I stood on first base--my English reader. Next moment the school bell clanged. Recess over, we grabbed our stuff and headed back to class.
“Kicky hit,” Kat said to me.
Kat’s real name was Katherine Boyer. Some people considered her a tomboy. I couldn’t have cared less. She and I had been sitting next to each other ever since fourth grade. In fact, we did most things together—school, homework, movies, radio and TV. Her mother once said we were back and forth between apartments so much, it was hard to know who lived where. Kat was like the other half of my brain.
“Thanks,” I said, but Big Toby’s question—“that true about your parents?”—kept bouncing ‘round my head like a steel marble in a lit-up pinball machine.
We poured into Brooklyn’s Public School Number 10. The old brick building had no music room, no art room, no library, and no gym. All the same, it stank like a locker room.________________________
- gae & Avi