Category Archives: characterization

Lessons from the Classics: Harte’s Outcasts

Note: This is part of an ongoing series of posts that take what I’m teaching in my 11th-grade American Lit classes and then shows how that could translate into creative writing, using examples of what I’m doing. I welcome feedback, because I’m no expert on American literature–just somebody who’s been teaching it for a couple of years. I would also love to hear how other writers are using these tools!   

This week in American lit, students are working in small groups to read Bret Harte’s* short story “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (1892).  This is our first example of literary naturalism, or a story that presents as its theme a bleak worldview in which individuals are crushed and destroyed by an unfeeling world/social order (or, as I tell the students, “if everybody’s dead at the end and nobody cares and nothing changes about the world, it’s probably naturalism”).

The plot of “Outcasts” finds four ne’er-do-wells from the town of Poker Flat escorted out of town: John Oakhurst, gambler; Mother Shipton, who runs a brothel; The Duchess, an employee of Mother Shipton’s; and Uncle Billy, a drunk and a suspected thief. This being naturalism, they all end up dead in the wilderness, but Harte’s focus on their actions between their expulsion from civilized society reveals that “in the end…these seeming derelicts really had hearts of gold” (VanSpanckeren 5). Well… most of them, anyway–Uncle Billy definitely takes the mule and horse and leaves the rest of them to die.

But Oakhurst offers his horse to the Duchess, whose mule isn’t capable of carrying her; Mother Shipton starves herself to give extra food to the innocent Piney, who was running to Poker Flat to marry her sweetheart, Tom; and Piney and the Duchess die huddled together for warmth, equal in death:

And when pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them, which was she that had sinned. Even the law of Poker Flat recognized this, and turned away, leaving them still locked in each other’s arms. (Harte 33)

The story ends with Oakhurst writing his own epitaph on a playing card (“who struck a streak of bad luck…and handed in his checks”) and nailing it to a tree–“And pulseless and cold, with a Derringer by his side and a bullet in his heart, though still calm as in life, beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat” (Harte 35). As I made several students explain to me, Oakhurst is physically strong, and stays calm, and cares for others–the strongest–but gives up and kills himself–the weakest.

That juxtaposition–the innocent and the sinner, the strongest and the weakest–is, to my mind, what gives this story its punch; and let’s not pretend we don’t all love a noble thief or a charming rogue, right?

HAN SHOT FIRST
The “rebels taking down an empire” thing may also have some promise.

One of my WIPs features a romantic-hero-mafioso, and the other a band of rebels desperate to bring down an empire. These things have, like everything, been done before, but I think I can get some good hints from Harte about how to use juxtaposition to create interesting characters, and to do it using indirect characterization.

Continue reading Lessons from the Classics: Harte’s Outcasts

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Lessons from the Classics: Twain’s Dialect

 Note: This is the first in an ongoing series (I hope?) of posts that take what I’m teaching in my 11th-grade American Lit classes and then shows how that could translate into creative writing, using examples of what I’m doing. I welcome feedback, because I’m no expert on American literature–just somebody who’s been teaching it for a couple of years. I would also love to hear how other writers are using these tools! 

This week in American Lit, we’ve been talking about dialect (writing that imitates the way people actually speak, including accents, slang, and idiom) and how writers use that to provide indirect characterization.

The story we read is Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” a short, humorous exploration of the type of characters populating a rural mining camp in the 1860s. It’s also a frame story,  with an unnamed narrator introducing and closing out the tale in deliberately prolix style, the better to heighten the contrast with the main tale, told by “good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler” (Twain 1). The version at the link has a different ending than the version in our textbook, but the same general ideas are at play in both.

Obviously, Twain’s intent is to satirize both the stuffy narrator, who can’t see the humor in Smiley’s adventures, and Wheeler himself, who’s a bore and a boor and won’t let the narrator escape. We spend time while we’re reading picking out the words that really help characterize the two of them in order to analyze Twain’s use of diction as character. Some of the students’ favorites:

  • The Narrator: compliance, garrulous, hereunto append, personage, infernal, tedious
  • Simon Wheeler: feller, flume, curiousest, so’s, solit’ry, dangdest, thish-yer–and I was very unsuccessful in convincing them that “Well, blame my cats!” should make a comeback in teen vernacular.

There’s clearly a vast gulf here in terms of diction (syntactically, they both tend to run on, but only one of them does it grammatically). It would be very, very easy to label any sentence from this story as spoken by the Narrator or by Simon Wheeler, based on diction alone, because their dialects are so distinct.

So, how do I use this in my own writing?  Continue reading Lessons from the Classics: Twain’s Dialect

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When You’re a Spy…

burnnoticecompleteseriesSo, thinking about teams again: one character I really like is the goofy-but-loyal sidekick who comes through big. Sam Axe from Burn Notice is one of my favorites. And image-searching for pics for this post gave me such a yearning to re-watch the series that I’ve got the pilot playing in the background now. I love every single one of the main characters; it’s interesting to think that I almost quit after the pilot (only stuck with it based on a friend’s recommendation).

The Burn Notice team fits Crusie’s requirements for a team (eventually):  Continue reading When You’re a Spy…

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break the chain

fleetwood-mac
Do these guys count as a story team? Leader, Lancer, Smart Guy, Big Guy, Chick…?

Well, last night I was so exhausted that I finally broke my streak and failed to post.

🙁

But today is a different day! So here I am, ready to dust myself off and start again…

…except that I actually spent the whole evening grading, so now it’s time for bed. OH WELL HERE I GO ANYWAY!

As usual, the end of the month is turning tricky. But at least I got to watch some Leverage while grading! That, of course, was inspired by thinking some more about the “team” posts on Crusie’s blog and my own favorite teams.

I want to make sure that my YA cli-fi WIP involves the development of an interesting team, so I’m hoping that a combination of reading Crusie’s analysis, analyzing some teams on my own, and thinking about my WIP (possibly even just subconsciously, since who has any free time in Nov/Dec??) will help me work past some of the blocks I keep running into.

Crusie sets up these qualifications: Continue reading break the chain

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GO TEAM!

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Go, team! (Not to be confused with The GO! Team, but they’re also excellent)

I’m really loving the posts that Jenny Crusie’s doing about “Story Teams” over on her blog. She’s analyzing why they work (or don’t). She analyzed the teams from Leverage (LOVE it), Person of Interest (tried to like it because she loves it and writes such interesting analysis of it, but…), and Legends of Tomorrow (uhhhhhhh) in preparation for troubleshooting the team she’s building in her WIP.

Reading her posts made me think about some of my favorite TV teams (Burn NoticeChuck, and Buffy being standouts, and White Collar too, although that’s a duo with support more than a team most of the time, and, of course, the Quest Team/Venture Brothers–Oh, and I guess Archer?).

So I want to analyze these teams the way she’s doing it, mostly for fun but also for comparison to the team I’m trying to build in my Lilly grant novel (YA cli-fi starring Anika, as-yet-untitled).  I listed too many, so I might just pick a few from the list.

Of course, that requires me to a)do that analysis and b)figure out what the heck is going on with my team.

And tonight’s not the night for that; I’m going to go to bed and sleep on it, and see what thoughts manage to crawl across my mind in the tryptophan-haze that is post-Thanksgiving relaxation time.

But teams make a pretty satisfying story unit. I’m excited to dig into this more!

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Na-No-Na-No-Na-No-Na-No-WRI-MO!

The inspiration pic for Our Hero (a model named Luke Armitage)
One of my favorite inspiration pics for Our Hero (a model named Luke Armitage)

Wrote another 1,184 words on the Romantic Suspense WIP that I’m writing with my friend Chel. (She wrote about 3,300 so like… dang.)

Spent a long time googling ways to describe faces. IndyScribes buddy Laura recently found out she has some face blindness; based on how long it took me to describe Our Hero, I’m not convinced I don’t have face illiteracy. Like: WHAT EVEN ARE NOSES. 🙁

And one of the major benefits of co-writing with someone with a different skillset is that I can feel free to type in phrases like…

The bar itself was polished, dark wood, and the atmosphere was REAL CLASSY OR WHATEVER PLEASE FIX THIS.

She gets her revenge when I get dialog with comment boxes over it that say things like “This is supposed to be witty flirting. It is terrible. Make it sound cool.” (I do my best.)

This picture of noses is much less fascinating that that inspo pic of Our Hero.
This picture of noses is much less fascinating that that inspo pic of Our Hero.

And maybe I should’ve put more terrible words in there – I mean, after all, it’s NaNoWriMo – part of my goal is to just keep writing, just keep writing, not to get stuck in an endless rabbit-hole of Google image searches of various types of noses.

And sure, I could’ve just slapped in some filler. I’ve already got Our Heroine responding to him in a way that should tell the reader he’s a looker, and I know that if I get too specific I run the risk of it being like the scene in Pretty in Pink where Andrew McCarthy shows up and I know I’m supposed to think he’s teh hawtness but at the same time I’m actually just like, Uh… him?

But you can definitely go too far the other way. One of my big stumbling blocks tonight was something a little silly, but: I’ve realized that I have a real knee-jerk reaction against anything being described as “perfect.” (This is possibly Twilight-related, as I seem to recall quite a few instances of Edward’s features/face being described as “perfect,” and/or him having ” a perfect nose” etc.)

To the point where I spent about 20 minutes trying to figure out how to describe this very nattily-dressed man’s tie without saying it was “perfect”… I mean, I know a lot of words! My vocabulary is seriously extensive! But… I mean…

It’s a tie.

I only care about it inasmuch as it characterizes Our Hero as someone who dresses very carefully. I don’t even have a color in mind (leaving that up to Chel–the suit is navy, so… not black? IDEK YOU GUYS).

Anyway, I gave up at “the knot on his tie perfectly symmetrical,” but I suspect editing (and/or Chel) will find a way to improve that.

At least, I hope that’s the case…

And I need to figure out how Our Hero thinks about his own hair in the mirror – currently the line (in deep 3rd from his POV) reads,

Running a hand over his perfectly placed hair, he waited to see if Rahul would actually manage to verbalize whatever he was thinking.

So if anybody out there can tell me what a(n admittedly vain) dude in his 30s would think about his own hair in that scenario…

Maybe I’ll ask my husbro.

 

PS–brief shoutout to myself for breaking 10,000 words for NaNo2016!! By rambling about noses to get this blog post up over 352 words… BUT STILL.

😀

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Blast from the Past

Well, while The Baby is napping, and C’s off feeding a friend’s cats and picking up his brother’s dog, I thought I’d try to pop up a quick entry. I’m working on finishing up my grant report for the Teacher Creativity Grant that led to the creation of this blog (fellow educators, GO APPLY!) and will post that shortly. I’ve also been doing some literary archaeology and re-reading the big, sprawling, terrifying novel draft that I was working on with a friend for several years (but no updates since… yikes, January 2015!).  Continue reading Blast from the Past

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All You Need Is Love

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The Kid, with his first Valentine ever (thanks, Mema!).

Last weekend, my husband and I hosted our annual Valentine’s Day party. This was the first year when my darling son could attend (him being currently nine months old) and even though he went to bed before the party had hit its apex, I think it’s safe to say everybody had a good time.

I started throwing these parties as small dinner parties the year we had my “fake kid” living with us, because I wanted to do some family-style activities and she had recently been through a breakup. My parents had always made sure to celebrate Valentine’s Day as a day about everyone you love–not just romantic partners–and even after I graduated from college I would occasionally get a package of conversation hearts in the mail from them.  Continue reading All You Need Is Love

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