Friday, June 2, 2017

3 Terrific Quotes on Character Flaws and a Poem

Howdy, Campers ~ and Happy Poetry Friday! The link to today's PF host is below, as is my poem.

' current topic is Creating Characters. Bobbi started this series, discussing characters' inner struggles. JoAnn gives us the questionnaire she uses to get to know her characters, Carla shows us concrete examples of how small details reveal character in nonfiction characters, and each Wednesday in May, Esther offered us Wednesday Writing Workouts.

And me? I need help pulling 3-D characters from the blank page.

One criticism of my W.I.P. novel in poems is that except for the narrator, the other characters are one dimensional. Ouch! As a teen, I saw everyone as black and white. It's still hard for me to see people as three dimensional, hard to accept the fact that they are/we humans are imperfect. But we all have flaws, darn it.

I'll never forget the example Barbara Bottner gave in a class at Otis Parsons in the 1980's. The gist of what she said is this:

Let's say you want to tell a story about three characters in search of buried treasure. 

Okay--that's fine. 

But what if you told a story about 

Richard Nixon

Lucille Ball 

and Godzilla 

searching for buried treasure? 
NOW you have a story.
(I've forgotten the specific characters Barbara suggested--insert your own favorites.)

Wow. Talk about flawed characters! That's the moment I began to understand the interconnectedness between real characters (with real bitten fingernails and real raspberry jam stains on their clothes, who sometimes stomp on their little brother's toe) and story.

illustration from my book, New Year at the Pier by St├ęphane Jorisch (Dial)

Still I struggle--both on the page and in real life--to see flaws in those I love. Or alternately, I dismiss a person entirely if I do discover a flaw.

One evening at a memorial service, I realized that everything that annoys me about my friends will be exactly what I remember fondly when they die

Ann Whitford Paul agrees:
"We all have flaws. Our characters must have flaws, too....Think about your imperfections. Think about imperfections in others that annoy you or maybe tug at your heart...Often...the strength and weakness are two sides of the same issue. Think of Frances in Russell Hoban's Bedtime for Frances. Her great imagination is exactly what makes her so fearful. It's what makes her sure spiders and tigers and monsters lurk in her room...Whatever the specifics, the main characters in our picture books must be human, and that means imperfect." ~ Ann Whitford Paul in Writing Picture Books

Ann Lamott makes this point, too:
"[Characters] shouldn't be too perfect; perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting...I like them to be mentally ill in the same sorts of ways that I am; for instance, I have a friend who said one day, 'I could resent the ocean if I tried,'and I realized that I love that in a guy." ~ Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird

As does Madeleine L'Engle:
"I like the fact that in ancient Chinese art the great painters always included a deliberate flaw in their work: human creation is never perfect." ~ Madeleine L'Engle

For today's poem I thought I'd describe a character by including a flaw and some eye-poppingly original details. But that's not exactly what turned out. The first line came to me immediately: "She takes out her teeth to chew on that." Hmm, I thought. We know who that must be.'re a writer--you know how it goes. You fiddle and rearrange and think and unthink and finally that first line seems too cliche, so out it goes.
I didn't include a fatal flaw or raspberry jam on her skirt, but here's a draft that came from my tweedle-dee and tweedle-dumming today:

by April Halprin Wayland

Ding-a-ling-ding, the telephone rings.
Her cat bats away a spec on wings.
She doesn't answer that telephone call.
Forget them all,
forget them all.

She watches this brave day's afterglow
then picks up the cat, tunes her radio,
leans into the umpire's gritty call.
It didn't have to happen at all,
it didn't have to happen at all.

She stares into space, chewing on that.
Her cat jumps into her tired lap.
How can it be the sun still sets
since Daniel's death,
since Daniel's death?

poem (c) 2017 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.

posted with love by April Halprin Wayland with help from an invisible bee named Spinach.


Linda B said...

Wow, April, what an ending. You've interested me in this character, and I want to know more. I like the repetition and it feels so sad. This time, thinking about her, I want to respond with "if only she would. . ." That feels like a flawed character to me. Thanks for explaining so well, and best wishes for those "other" characters!

Carol Varsalona said...

April, thanks for filling my head with information on how to make characters real. Clarice is one of those characters who faces a day with grief but one does not know that until the end. I like how you brought the reader to this conclusion.

Kay said...

What a haunting poem to introduce a haunted character. Thank you for sharing the wealth of information on creating characters. I want to go play with my own now!

Buffy Silverman said...

Oh, I didn't expect that ending to your poem at all--it casts the character in such a different light than the opening. Love the way you revealed her tragedy. And thanks for sharing all the character hints!

Jane @ said...

Definitely a great subject for all writers to think about! "Perfect" characters aren't worth caring about as readers because they simply can't be real! A character can be deeply flawed and still likeable or relatable, and I think that's often where the real writing challenge lies - it's easy to write characters who are really good or really evil, but it's in those complex shades in between that the best characters reside.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Linda, Carol, Kay, Buffy and Jane...I can't tell you how blown away I am that the poem resonated with each of you. I'm sure you know that go to a critique group with a story that feels like dog doo...and then they LIKE it. Amazing. Thank you for connecting. I appreciate this community sooooo much!

Tabatha said...

"She takes out her teeth to chew on that" -- ha! I like the Richard Nixon, Lucille Ball, Godzilla example. Poor Clarice. Thanks for getting us thinking, April!