Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wednesday Writing Workout: Charactization: Tell It Sideways, Courtesy of Sherry Shahan

Today's Wednesday Writing Workout comes to us courtesy of the talented Sherry Shahan. Sherry and I first met virtually, when she joined the New Year/New Novel (NYNN) Yahoo group I started back in 2009. I love the photo she sent for today's post--it personifies her willingness to do the tough research sometimes required for the stories she writes. As she says on her website, she has:
 "ridden on horseback into Africa’s Maasailand, hiked through a leech-infested rain forest in Australia, shivered inside a dogsled for the first part of the famed 1,049 mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, rode-the-foam on a long-board in Hawaii, and spun around dance floors in Havana, Cuba." 

Her research has led to more than three dozen published books, fiction and nonfiction. To keep from becoming stale, Sherry likes to mix it up—writing picture books, easy readers, middle-grade novels, and YA. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches a writing course for UCLA extension.

Her new young adult novel Skin and Bones (A. Whitman) is a quirky story set in an eating disorder unit of a metropolitan hospital. The main character “Bones” is a male teen with anorexia. He falls desperately in love with an aspiring ballerina who becomes his next deadly addiction.

The novel was inspired by a short story Sherry wrote years ago, “Iris and Jim.” It appeared in print eight times worldwide. Her agent kept encouraging her to expand “Iris and Jim” into a novel. Easy for her to say!

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Wednesday Writing Workout 
Tell It Sideways
by Sherry Shahan

During the first draft of Skin and Bones I stumbled over a number of unexpected obstacles. How could I give a character an idiosyncratic tone without sounding flippant? Eating disorders are serious, and in too many instances, life-threatening. 

Sometimes I sprinkled facts into farcical narration. Other times statistics emerged through dialogue between prominent characters—either in an argument or by using humor. Either way, creating quirky characters felt more organic when their traits were slipped in sideways instead of straight on.

There are endless ways to introduce a character, such as telling the reader about personality:
"Mrs. Freeman could never be brought to admit herself wrong on any point." —      Flannery O'Connor, "Good Country People."
Or by detailing a character’s appearance:
"The baker wore a white apron that looked like a smock. Straps cut under his arms, went around in back and then to the front again, where they were secured under his heavy waist ."   —Raymond Carver "A Small, Good Thing"
The art of creating fully realized characters is often a challenge to new writers of fiction. As a longtime teacher I’ve noticed:

1.) Writers who use short cuts, such a clich├ęs, which produce cardboard or stereotypical characters.
2.) Writers who stubbornly pattern the main character after themselves in a way that’s unrealistic.
3.) Writers who are so involved in working out a complicated plot that their characters don’t receive enough attention.

In Skin and Bones I let readers get to know my characters though humorous dialogue. This technique works best when characters have opposing viewpoints. 

Consider the following scene. (Note: Lard is a compulsive over-eater; Bones is anorexic.)

“I’ll never buy food shot up with hormones when I own a restaurant,” Lard said. “Chicken nuggets sound healthy enough, but they have more than three dozen ingredients—not a lot of chicken in a nugget.”

Bones put on rubber gloves in case he’d have to touch something with calories. “Can’t we talk about something else?”

“That’s the wrong attitude, man. Don’t you want to get over this shit?”

“Not at this particular moment, since it’s almost lunch and my jaw still hurts from breakfast.”

Lard shook his head. “I’m glad I don’t live inside your skin.”

“It’d be a little crowded.”

Exercise #1: Choose a scene from a work-in-progress where a new character is introduced. (Or choose one from an existing novel.) Write a paragraph about the character without using physical descriptions. Repeat for a secondary character.

Exercise #2: Give each character a strong opinion about a subject. Do Nice Girls Really Finish Last? Should Fried Food Come With a Warning? Make sure your characters have opposing positions. Next, write a paragraph from each person’s viewpoint.

Exercise #3: Using the differing viewpoints, compose a scene with humorous dialogue. Try not to be funny just for humor’s sake. See if you can weave in a piece 
of factual information (Lard’s stats. about Chicken Nuggets), along with a unique character trait (Bones wearing gloves to keep from absorbing calories through his skin.)

I hope these exercises help you think about characterization in a less conventional way. Thanks for letting me stop by!

Thank you, Sherry, for this terrific Wednesday Writing Workout! Readers, if you give these exercises a try, do let us know how they work for you.

Happy writing!


Constance said...

Thanks, Sherry. Good tips!

Sharon Lovejoy said...

Ok, I read Sherry Shahan's tips twice. They're usable and fresh and make me look at what I am doing in writing in a fresh way.

Thank you Sherry. I can see why you're also teaching. You're sowing a crop of new writers.


Rosi said...

These are terrific exercises. I'm definitely going to try these and post the link on my blog. Thanks!

coast2coast said...

Good examples and fine exercises. As lively as your writing! I'll remember these tips.

jan godown annino said...

Appreciations Teaching Authors (Carmen!) for introducing me to Sherry. I look forward to visiting her site.
The concrete examples from Carver & O'Conner are spit-spot solid. And hers make me know her writing is sure & spare.

The prompts make me want to run & do them. I agree with Sharon Lovekoy (whose books I've given as gifts for years.)

Please invite Sherry back again?


ps SKIN AND BONES sounds not only important to share with families & teens, but also, funny. And that is a big ticket, given the topic.

bookseedstudio said...

(Carmela!) :)

Sharon Lovejoy said...

Yes, please DO invite Sherry back again. I think we all learned a lot from her.


April Halprin Wayland said...

Fabulous exercises--thank you!

Glenna Luschei said...

Very helpful, thank you. - Glenna Luschei

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments (and Jan, for correcting your typo! :-) ) I think Sherry is again on the road, but I hope she gets a chance to read your marvelous responses.