characterization

Uncle Peter’s Eloquence

Rather than get into a long essay on erroneous use of terms for language (the temptation is great, but I will resist), I will simply state an observation: it’s never a good idea to try to convey variation in spoken language in terms of spelling. The best (and maybe the only) way to make this clear is by example. Take a look at this exchange from Gone with the Wind. In this scene, there is an elderly black man named Peter, a slave, and he’s upset with Scarlett.

“Dey talked in front of me lak Ah wuz a mule an’ couldn’ unnerstan’ dem—lak Ah wuz a Affikun an’ din’ know whut dey wuz talkin’ ’bout,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “An’ dey call me a nigger an’ Ah ain’ never been call a nigger by no w’ite folks, an’ dey call me a ole pet an’ say dat niggers ain’ ter be trus’ed! Me not ter be trus’ed! Why, w’en de ole Cunnel wuz dyin he say ter me, ‘You, Peter! You look affer mah chillun. Te’k keer of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ‘ cause she ain’ got no mo’ sense dan a hoppergrass.’ An’ Ah done tek keer of her good all dese yars.”

“Nobody but the Angel Gabriel could have done better,” said Scarlett soothingly. “We just couldn’t have lived without you.”

You’ll note that the author attempts to portray Peter’s speech by playing with spelling. The idea being, I suppose, that he doesn’t speak English as it is written (something nobody does, by the way, unless you happen to be having a conversation with the ghost of somebody who lived in the 15th century). The author feels it is important to make the distinction between Peter’s speech and Scarlett’s…. why? Because he’s a slave, and she’s a free white woman of means? Because he is uneducated and she is … a little more educated? Let’s approach this differently, by rewriting the passage:

“They talked in front of me like I was a mule and couldn’t understand them — like I was an African and didn’t know what they was talking about,” said Peter, giving a tremendous sniff. “And they call me a nigger and I ain’t never been call a nigger by no white folks, and they call me a old pet and say that niggers ain’t to be trusted! Me not to be trusted! Why, when the old Colonel was dying he say to me, ‘You Peter! You look after my children. Take care of young Miss Pittypat,’ he say, ’cause she ain’t got no more sense than a hoppergrass.’ And I done take care of her good all these years.”

“Nobody but the Angel Gabriel cudda done bettah” said Scarlett soothingly. “We jus’ couldn’t have lived without you.”

I haven’t changed the dialog one bit — I’ve only changed the spelling. In Peter’s case all the grammatical points of his speech are maintained, such as the invariant use of third person singular verb forms (‘he say’). The distinctive lexical items remain, too (hoppergrass) and the syntax (”I ain’t never been call’). If it’s important to portray his speech, then this passage does it by means of lexical, grammatical and syntactic variations without resorting to spelling. Uncle Peter’s eloquence is still there.

I’ve done to Scarlett’s dialog what the author did to Peter’s — I changed the spelling to approximate how she would have pronounced the words. The result? It’s amusing and condescending — the misspellings seem to indicate something about her intelligence, or her illiteracy.

Mitchell uses spelling this way repeatedly. Some examples:

“Me, I am dead to shame,” grinned Rene. “Who would be respectable? All of my days I was respectable until ze war set me free lak ze darkies. Nevaire again must I be deegneefied and full of ennui. Free lak ze bird! I lak my pie wagon. I lak my mule. I lak ze dear Yankees who so kindly buy ze pie of Madame Belle Mere. No, my Scarlett, I must be ze King of ze Pies. Eet ees my destiny! Lak Napoleon, I follow my star.” He flourished his whip dramatically.


“Look, Ash,” said Will slowly. “I ain’t aimin’ to have nobody say nothin’ against Suellen, no matter what they think. You leave it to me. When you’ve finished with the readin’ and the prayin’ and you say: ‘If anyone would like to say a few words,’ you look right at me, so I can speak first.”


The lesson here is simple: don’t play with spelling unless you have a really good reason. Playing with spelling will almost always work as a trivialization of the character, and that’s never something you want. If it’s important to portray dialect, do that in other ways.

To be clear, this is not the only thing wrong with the novel. Oh no. I’ve considered the novel in more detail elsewhere, and brought down the anger of the masses on my head, so right now I’ll just point you to this post by Justine Larbalestier.  which covers the basic issues, both about the movie, and about reactions to the movie.

Examples of well done dialect representation

Annie Proulx. The Shipping News

“Ah,” said Yark. “I ‘as a one or two to finish up, y’know,” pointing to wooden skeletons and half-planked sides. “Says I might ‘elp Nige Fearn wid ‘is long-liner this winter. But if I gets out in the woods, you know, and finds the timber, it’ll go along. Something by spring, see, by the time the ice goes. If I goes in the woods and finds the right sticks you know, spruce, var. See, you must find good uns, your stem, you wants to bring it down with a bit of a ‘ollow to it, sternpost and your knee, and deadwoods a course, and breast’ook. You has to get the right ones. Your timbers, you know. There’s some around ‘ere steams ’em. I wouldn’t set down in a steam timber boat. Weak.”


Tone Cade Bambara. “My Man Bovanne”

“Yeh, well never mind,” says Joe Lee. “The point is Mama well, it’s pride. You embarrass yourself and us too dancin like that.”

“I wasn’t shame.” Then nobody say nuthin. Them standin there in they pretty clothes with drinks in they hands and gangin up on me, and me in the third-degree chair and nary a olive to my name. Felt just like the police got hold to me.

“First of all,” Task say, holdin up his hand and tickin off the offenses, “the dress. Now that dress is too short, Mama, and too low-cut for a woman your age. And Tamu’s going to make a speech tonight to kick off the campaign and will be introducin you and expecting you to organize the council of elders—”

“Me? Didn nobody ask me nuthin. You mean Nisi? She change her name?”

“Well, Norton was supposed to tell you about it. Nisi wants to introduce you and then encourage the older folks to form a Council of the Elders to act as an advisory—”

“And you going to be standing there with your boobs out and that wig on your head and that hem up to your ass. And people’ll say, ‘Ain’t that the homy bitch that was grindin with the blind dude?”


Laurence Yep. Dragonwings.

 Father noticed the almost empty plate at the same time. “Look at this boy,” he said in exasperation. “He eat enough for four pigs.” He started to apologize to the demoness, but she only smiled prettily again.

“There’s only one real compliment for a cook, and that’s for her guests to eat everything up. You must take the rest of the cookies with you.”  She smoothed her apron over her lap and winked at me secretly.

“You too kind.”  Father spread his hands. “You make us ashame.” He kicked me gently under the table.

“Yes, ashame,” I piped up.

pov: the unreliable narrator

I’m not a huge fan of first person narration. In fact, I will admit that I often pick up a book and put it down immediately upon discovering that it is in first person. However, there’s one approach to first person that I truly like, and that’s the unreliable narrator.

writing is both mask and unveilingThe way to think about this is to imagine that the story you’re reading, the narrator whose words you are reading are not being addressed to you. The character is talking to a police officer or judge or some other authority figure.

You’re listening to somebody  spin a story. A narrator who has got more than the usual stake in being believed. We’re not talking the grandma narrator, the one who just wants to amuse you with funny stories of her girlhood. We’re talking grandma in the pokey, and the first time she sits down with her lawyer.

The first grandma might start:

We were poor, but I didn’t know that until I first went to school and found out that other little girls wore dresses that weren’t made out of flour sacks.

Grandma in the Pokey might start:

Now, you listen here. If I shoot a man between the eyes — and I’m not admitting I did anything of the kind — you had best believe I was acting in self defense. To let that black-hearted thieving scoundrel live even another minute would have been the death of me.

The first grandma may have a great story to tell, and she may write it down and sell it and find a niche audience and do very well. This Mitford-type approach is not so much my cuppa tea. I’m far more interested in the second grandma, grandma with a gun. She’s got a story to tell, but it’s only going to be one layer of a very complicated story, and I’ll have to pay close attention because now and then she’ll let her guard down and I’ll get a glimpse of what was really happening, how she came to shoot Jimmy O’Toole, he of the prize winning dahlias, between the eyes.

Here’s a setup that begs for a first person unreliable narrator:

Joan’s car is sitting in the garage with one fender smashed in, a ticket on the windshield, and the unmistakable smell of a common Illegal Substance wafting out a broken window. And the gas tank, which was full yesterday afternoon at three, is on empty.

Joan walks upstairs to the bedroom her twin daughters share and wakes them less than gently. They peek at her from underneath the covers.

Talk, says Joan. And it better be good.

All first person narrators are unreliable to some extent. They are limited by their own observations and memories, by motivations hidden and in plain sight, by necessity. But a true unreliable narrator is exciting. That narrator is a cat in a sack. Maybe a really mad cat with very long claws and a score to settle. Maybe a desperate little cat whose been lying so long to stay out of trouble’s way that she’s forgot how to tell the truth. Or maybe an evil cat, one who likes to mess with your mind. Purr and slash, just for the hell of it.
Two unreliable narrators come to mind first. Eudora Welty‘s “Why I live at the P.O.” is a wonderful short story with a narrator who will stick around in your head for a long time. And then there’s Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. If you are at all interested in unabridged audio, this book was produced beautifully and perfectly narrated by Frances Sternhagen with a pitch-perfect Maine accent (PW review here).

Dolores is a fantastic unreliable narrator, because she herself isn’t completely sure what happened, and what she wants to happen. She’s got strong opinions and she’s not afraid to tell you exactly what’s on her mind. Or at least, the parts she can bear to speak out loud.

 

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dealing with a creepy character

So, how do you write a troubled or troubling character who is very different from everybody you know, totally outside your personal experience? Could you write from the perspective of a psychopath? A heroin addict? An anorexic? A child molester? A six year old who beats a newborn to death?

Most authors don’t take on this kind of material and I’m sure that for the most part, this is because they don’t feel comfortable with the subject matter. More to the point: they don’t want to feel comfortable with it, or do the research that would help them achieve the necessary understanding.

While most novelists avoid these extremes, we all do write difficult characters at one point or another. Narcissistic boyfriends, an alcoholic uncle with a gambling problem, a teenager who hasn’t gone a day without vomiting in many years. If you find yourself looking such a character in the face, you have a couple choices: you can take a shortcut and use the stereotypes available to you (and there are a lot of examples); you can keep the character in the background; or, you can undertake some research.

This line of thought started when I came across Robert Hare’s Without Conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us. While I was reading it, I thought, this would have been useful when I was writing Queen of Swords, because there was one character who fits the bill, and another who might have, if I had had more background. Maybe I could have got closer to the truth of these characters if I had read Hare’s work before I started.

So I’ve been reading more about abnormal psychology: other non-fiction work for laypeople, case studies and reports of criminal cases, memoirs and biographies. There are some good resources online; for example, interviews with people who have tried and failed to stop drinking or give up crystal meth, and the repercussions of their actions. Fiction and film are not a good source. How the next person interprets and represents schizophrenia is not what you need to know.

Some authors have a better instinctual understanding of characters and won’t need as much prep work. I wonder if Thomas Harris did a lot of reading and preparation before he took on Hannibal Lecter, or if Ken Kesey did the same for his characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. If I wanted to write my own version of an extremely disturbed individual, I would have to do a lot of work ahead of time, but first I’d have to challenge myself to take on something so dark. The idea of letting a character like Hannibal Lecter inside my head is frightening, in many ways. Once he’s there, it might be hard to shut him down.

Certainly there is no lack of factual material to draw from. The example cited above, of a six year old who beat a newborn, is true. It happened in the late 90s in California, as hard as it is to imagine. If you keep an eye on true-crime reporting, you may come across something that really catches your imagination. And then you have to work up the courage to follow that lead.

Update: I had wanted to include this quote from The New Yorker article “Suffering Souls” by John Seabrook which I couldn’t find when I needed it. But of course it popped up when it thought I had forgot about it completely. I like the bit about skin-crawling, it would make a good detail in a character description.

Harenski recently interviewed a Western inmate who scored a 38.9. “He had killed his girlfriend because he thought she was cheating on him,” she told me. “He was so charming about telling it that I found it hard not to fall into laughing along in surprise, even when he was describing awful things.” Harenski, who is thirty, did not experience the involuntary skin-crawling sensation that, according to a survey conducted by the psychologists Reid and M. J. Meloy, one in three mental-health and criminal-justice professionals report feeling on interviewing a psychopath; in their paper on the subject, Meloy and Meloy speculate that this reaction may be an ancient intraspecies predator-response system. “I was just excited,” Harenski continued. “I was saying to myself, ‘Wow. I found a real one.’ ”

The reality of the fictional person

Somebody (was it you?) asked if I ever use real people as models for fictional characters. This question ties into the topic of Mayme (of Pajama Girls) that I raised in my last post, but first let me answer it more generally:

No. And, yes. I think it’s fair to say that any character of mine is an amalgam of people I’ve known and people I’ve heard or read stories about. All the raw material in my head comes from somewhere, after all.  So for example, if I’m writing about the trading post in Paradise and the people who bought out the McGarrity family, I think about that on multiple levels: is this an individual or a big family? \Who are the primary characters we’ll see in the trading post? Where did they come from? How do they fit in, or don’t they? And the crucial question: when I close my eyes, who do I see standing behind the counter?

Pajama Girls of Lambert SquareWhen I do close my eyes, there’s a kind of slideshow. The store manager at the grocery store where we shopped when I was a kid (his name was Ray, and he and I had the same birthday, and he always wore a bow tie); a woman named Anneliese who sold me a coat in Austria, she smelled of vanilla and her hands were scrubbed so hard they were a painful shade of red.  A dozen different shop keepers from novels and television shows and movies. And hat is how it starts.

But there’s still the question of whether I ever take a whole person out of real life and just plop them into the fictional storyline. Are there any lawyers reading this? Go away.

Once in a while I have done this, but never for a major character.  That is to say, character x may be based  on person z in that I draw on my experiences and understanding of Z to create X. The few times this has happened (and please don’t ask me to be specific, because you know the lawyers didn’t go away) Z has been a very, very strong personality. And you can read that whatever way you like.

I can tell you about one set of associations, because in this instance, the connection between the real life person and the fictional character is svery loose, and also very positive. The secondary storyline in Pajama Girls has to do with Mayme Hurt, an African-American woman born and raised in the fictional town of Lamb’s Corner. She’s about thirty, divorced, with one daughter, and she lives with her mother in the house where she grew up. She goes to school part time, and she’s a full time employee at Cocoon, Julia Darrow’s shop at Lambert Square.

Mayme’s storyline is about the attraction between opposites, namely between herself and a newcomer to Lamb’s Corner. I’m going to leave it at that for the moment because the point I’m trying to make is this: I’m not African American. I didn’t grow up in a small town in the deep south. I don’t have an ex-husband, and I’m not raising a daughter on my own. So where does Mayme’s character come from? How do I channel her?

This is a rather unusual case, because Mayme is based, in small part, on Monica Jackson. You know Monica’s website? I mention it now and then. She’s an African-American novelist, somebody who is passionate about the things that are important to her and is willing to speak her mind. Somebody with a sense of humor. Somebody from the south, who has a daughter to raise (although I don’t know anything about Monica’s marital status, whether she’s divorced or married or what). I’ve read enough of Monica’s writing, her novels and her weblog, to be able to imagine (and note that word, it’s crucial) her acting and reacting.

So when I was writing Mayme, Monica was in my head.

Does this mean that Monica is Mayme? Absolutely not. Monica may read Pajama Girls and find Mayme completely unbelievable. Of course I hope that’s not the case, but it’s a risk I take — it’s the risk any author takes when they write about any character, real or imagined. Monica may tell me I’ve got the whole thing ass-backwards or that the character Mayme is unbelievable in the way she reacts to one particular event or how she talks to one particular person. There will be something that doesn’t ring true to Monica, and probably other African American women from the deep south.

This is true of every character I write who isn’t a 50 something white woman born and raised in Chicago. Unless I am writing about me, my characterizations are always open to close examination. Which they might fail.

The bigger the difference between the author and the character, the harder it is to get it done right. When the difference is very big, I personally sometimes try to bridge the gap by reading diaries and biographies (especially if it’s a historical character) with the hope that I get a strong enough sense of the character that I’ll be able to channel him or her. When he character is contemporary, I draw on a lifetime of experiences and associations. Once in a very rare while, I draw more specifically on a person I know or have some sense of.

I am taking a chance telling you about the Monica/Mayme connection. I don’t think Monica will take offense, as Mayme is a great character. She may laugh at how wrong I’ve got things, but I’m braced. In fact, I think this whole association happened in part because of her reaction to Tied to the Tracks. She wrote a great review, in which she pointed out that the cast of characters is exceedingly white. True. She also pointed out how hard it would have been for me to write the pov of an African American born and raised in a small town in the south. Also true. Maybe on some level I took that as an artistic challenge. I wanted to see if I could pull it off.  One thing I am sure, Monica will be honest in her reaction.

 

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