Showing, Telling, and Paddling Ducks

“Show, don’t tell.”

That’s the mantra that gets hammered into the head of every beginning writer. If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class or attended a writer’s conference, you’ve probably heard something along the lines of, “Don’t say ‘Sally is sad.’ Show us Sally being sad.” This leads to painting a picture of Sally’s sad expression, describing the teardrops streaking her face, and detailing Sally’s posture and movements in a way that makes it clear to readers just how unhappy Sally is.

That’s good advice, as far as it goes. The problem is that for most people, external emotional responses are just a tiny part of their actual reaction. Indeed, one of the most important things we learn as we grow from childhood to adulthood is to hide our emotions.

It’s like that famous quote, usually attributed to actor Michael Caine: “Be like a duck. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like crazy underneath.” If your characters are to come off as real people, most of their emotional reactions are going to be entirely internal. And if we only ever describe the tranquility above the surface, our readers might never guess at the frantic paddling that’s going on down below.

My Own Achilles’ Heel

I’m blessed to be in a writing group with three perceptive readers who are diligent at reminding me when I’m not telling enough. We submit our chapters to each other using Google Docs, and we use the platform’s commenting feature extensively. When my group reviews my writing, the most common response I get from them is something along the lines of, “Where’s the emotional response?”

Okay, I’ll be honest. Sometimes I just forget. What happens, I think, is that I get lazy and assume that readers will take their own emotional response to the story and project it onto the POV character. This usually falls flat. Just as often, though, I’ll write a character’s physical response but forget to dig into the inner reaction to help carry the story along.

So I submit my chapters. The next day, I’ll open up them up to see a comment from Kris: “How does she feel about what just happened?” Mike has responded to Kris with something like, “I was wondering the same thing.” Inevitably, Kelli has added, “That makes three of us.”

That’s how I know I need to go back and revise.

Show and Tell

In a guest post on WritersDigest.com, author Joshua Henkin calls “show, don’t tell” the “Great Lie of Writing Workshops.” As he explains:

“A story is not a movie is not a TV show, and I can’t tell you the number of student stories I read where I see a camera panning. Movies are a perfectly good art from [sic], and they’re better at doing some things than novels are—at showing the texture of things, for instance. But novels are better at other things. At moving around in time, for example, and at conveying material that takes place in general as opposed to specific time…. But most important, novels can describe internal psychological states, whereas movies can only suggest them through dialogue and gesture (and through the almost always contrived-seeming voiceover, which is itself a borrowing from fiction).”

Showing is good. We have to show. But the best writers also embrace telling as a technique that allows them to provide much better insight into what the duck is doing down there with its little webbed feet.

As author Lee Child says, “We’re not story showers. We’re story tellers.”

Balancing Show and Tell

I’m still learning how to use both showing and telling effectively in my own writing. Honestly, it’s been difficult for me. From my work with my writing group, though, I can single out four suggestions that have really helped me improve.

1. Keep your POV character(s) in mind.

If you’re writing in first person, you’re telling pretty much all the time. The conceit of first person is that the reader is getting a direct feed of the point-of-view character’s inner monologue. This can lead to a vivid, unique voice that’s difficult to achieve from other points of view.

Stories in third person unlimited aren’t as common as they used to be. With this POV, the narrative voice drifts in and out of heads, reading the thoughts and emotional reactions of whatever character makes sense at the moment. In contrast, with third person limited the inner voice comes through a single character who is the focus of the book, chapter, or section.

Regardless of how you deal with points of view, it’s critical to consider how your characters would react to everything happening around them. Knowing your characters—their wants and needs, strengths and weaknesses, goals and regrets—is the easy part. Translating those character traits into genuine human reactions is where things get really tough.

2. Take an “all of the above” approach.

We usually start by showing. Your characters say and do things. They act and react. Even the “stage directions” that accompany your dialogue can go a long way towards portraying realistic human responses. A sidelong glance, a cock of the eyebrow, or a sudden intake of breath all say something to the reader.

Beneath all the “camera and microphone” stuff is the internal dialogue. You can present your characters’ direct thoughts (“Geez—what’s her problem?“), or you can report their thoughts in third person (“Gwendolyn wondered what Julie’s problem was.”). The things your characters notice and internally comment on can go a long way toward rounding out your POV characters’ responses.

If you do this enough, you’ll often find yourself monitoring your own thoughts and feelings, gauging your own private reactions to things as they happen to you, so you can use your responses later in your writing. Inevitably, you’ll find yourself wondering whether your personal reactions might be a little different if you weren’t watching them like a fly on the wall of your own brain.

Yeah, Heisenberg is kind of a jerk.

3. Do an “emotional response” edit pass.

My experience with my writing group has told me that I need to spend more time crafting my characters’ reactions to emotion-inducing events. As I’m getting my chapters ready for review, I set aside time to go methodically through each section, noting response-worthy moments and checking the narrative for appropriate reactions.

There are so many things to consider as you do this. Aside from your characters’ actual reactions, you have to figure out the right way to couch them in the voice you’ve chosen. In fast-paced action sequences, your characters may not have much time to respond to things. It may take a beat or two (or the end of the action) until your characters’ heads and hearts can catch up. If your story uses a “scene-sequel” structure, you may provide an immediate reflex to the emotional high points and then amplify your characters’ reactions in the scenes that follow.

However you choose to do it, explicitly tying the big moments in your story to specific reactions in your characters can solidify the impact these moments have on your reader.

4. Ask readers for help.

No matter how much effort I put into fine-tuning my characters’ responses, I always miss something. Usually multiple somethings. The amazing people in my writing group know me well enough that they instinctively look for off-key or absent reactions in the chapters I submit for review.

If you have similar challenges in your own writing, you can ask your readers to be specifically on the lookout for areas where characters’ emotional reactions don’t seem to meet their expectations. Give them a shorthand comment or a specific highlight color to use to indicate particular passages where a little telling could supplement what you’re already showing. Once others have helped identify the problem passages, go back to your characters to find out what their inner (and outer) responses should be.

My own writing has benefited from this process. I hope yours does, too.

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

Pain

We all go through it either psychologically, emotionally, or physically. A lot of times it can end up being all three. No one shares their agony exactly in the same way as another because of our different personalities, upbringing, experiences, and perspectives. But, we all deal with pain. None of us are free from it.

As you’re writing, your character or characters will always have something in one of these areas that they’re striving to get through. Trying to understand and process. They may be searching out who they are, and maybe because of their upbringing, or culture, this search causes them a great deal of affliction, going outside the grain of figuring those pieces out. Maybe the loss of someone they love has greatly affected their worth, will, drive, or purpose for existence. Or physically, an illness they feel is so intense that even getting up to take a shower is too much to handle. Each area can weaken your characters spirit and heart.

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Readers want to keep reading because pain is a universal thing, even if they don’t completely relate to what that character’s dealing with. They want to root for them. The readers feel the agony and have empathy on how much this space hurts the characters deeply and they want to be there to push them forward.

The hero’s journey for our characters is constant movement within that anguish. Getting to the next step which can be more intense, scary, hard, and worse before it gets better. Our character will want to leave, but they’ll have to make the hard choice to face it and keep going through the storm. By doing so . . . some answers, lessons, and moments will define them.

Here’s a few examples from some of my favorite books. There’s no spoilers on endings!

The character Hazel Grace Lancaster, from Fault in Our Stars, is a seventeen-year-old who has thyroid cancer. It’s started to spread into her lungs, so to breathe properly, she uses a portable oxygen tank. Hazel feels suffering day in and day out. She wants to be understood. To appease her mother, she decides to attend a cancer patients’ support group and meets a teenage boy named Augustus Waters. They begin to build a friendship and she finds out he had osteosarcoma, but had his leg amputated and is cancer free. With their friendship they’re able to help each other with the struggles they both face.

In Shutter Island, Teddy Daniels, is devastated by the loss of his wife which took place in a fire. The grief he feels messes with him both emotionally and psychologically, sending him spirally to look for answers about his wife’s death and his own sanity. He wants truth and answers. The story makes you question the depth of this man’s sorrow and wonder where his heads at, but you’re rooting for him to figure it out.

In Wonder, August Pullman, also known as Auggie has “mandibulofacial dysostosis” a rare facial deformity. Surgery is not uncommon for him as he’s had (27) of them. Auggie’s been homeschooled by his mom for eleven years, so when he’s enrolled to go to 5th grade, in a public school, pain and fear of being different sets in. He wants to be accepted and liked. Auggie goes to school anyways and faces the unknown each day.

What hardship is your character dealing with?

Is it physical, mental, or emotional? All of them?

What would your character/characters have to do to face that pain? The next step forward?

What is one thing that your character really wants and is in search for?

  • Hazel wants to be understood/friendship.
  • Teddy wants truth and answers.
  • Auggie wants to be accepted and liked as he is.

For fun and research go through some of your favorite movies and establish what the characters ultimate affliction and want/need (goal) is. Or, even think about your own life story, a friend’s, or a family member. How has their pain/ struggle made them tick? React? How have they handled it?

Now, go write that novel. Bring all the raw emotion in so the reader is sucked into feeling it all right along with your character.

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Lauri Schoenfeld’s first love is her little clan of three silly kidlets and her wonderful hubby, Andy. Writing is a close second. She began writing poems at the age of nine, and her love for literature and music developed into composing thirty songs.  In 2014 her short story, Christmas Treasure, was featured in an anthology called, Angels from their Realms of Story.  Her favorite genre to write is anything dark, psychological, and suspenseful, but she enjoys expanding her horizons and dipping her feet in other genres as well.  Lauri teaches summer writing classes for kids and mentors teens throughout the year. She’s a Child Abuse and Scoliosis Survivor. Lauri runs a group for teen girls with Scoliosis called, The S Squad. Their motto is Strength, Support and Self Confidence.  She’s been known to dance around the house with a spoon as her microphone and sneak toppings from the ice cream bar. Lauri’s taken online classes at the Institute of Children’s Literature and was the President of the League of Utah Writers, Oquirrh Chapter for two years.  She’s a member of Crime Writers and International Thriller Writers.

The Antihero’s Journey

Characters in stories inhabit a spectrum of morality that inform their motives. On the one end are pure heroes, like Superman, Captain America, and Marge Gunderson in Fargo, who live by a strict moral code and who always do the right thing for the reasons. On the other end are pure villains, like Sauron, the Joker, and the Witch in Snow White, who can be counted on to always sow seeds of chaos at every turn. Somewhere in between lies the realm of perhaps the most complex characters of them all, the ones we love to hate: the antiheroes.

Antiheroes lack some or all of the traditional heroic virtues, such as honesty, integrity, and morality. They also possess many traits more common to villains, such as greed, bigotry, or violent tendencies, which lead them to make morally questionable choices. An antihero is not the primary villain in a story only because there exists a greater evil that he or she must fight against. And the main reason they are fighting against that evil is because it is affecting them personally. Otherwise, they probably wouldn’t even care. Indeed, if and when an antihero does do the right thing, it’s usually to serve their own self-interests instead of anything altruistic. That, I believe, is what separates an antihero from a “good character with flaws.”

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For instance, we shouldn’t want Travis Bickle to succeed in Taxi Driver because he’s a psychopath who wants to kill someone. We shouldn’t want Walter White to succeed in Breaking Bad because he’s making and selling drugs. And we shouldn’t want anyone in The Godfather or Goodfellas to succeed because they’re all mafia members. And yet, we do want them to succeed.

It’s anyone’s guess as to why we continue to enjoy and root for antiheroes. Maybe it’s because they tap into something deep within each of us that wishes we could say and do some of the things they say and do. (After all, isn’t it supremely satisfying to watch Danny Ocean and his pals rob three Las Vegas casinos at once?) Or maybe it’s because we recognize some of their flaws in ourselves, and there but for the grace of God go we. Or maybe it’s simply because a well-written antihero is just so much more interesting to study than a flawless hero or a simple villain.

Examples of antiheroes abound in literature, TV, and movies, ranging from Hamlet to Huck Finn to Holden Caulfield to Dr. House. By my personal favorite example is Max Rockatansky, from the Mad Max films. Over the course of three films (I’m leaving Fury Road, even though I love it), Max goes on “The Antihero’s Journey,” from normal person, to almost villain, and finally to hero. His character arc is inverted, a deep U shaped trajectory. Max is an excellent example to study what makes an antihero.

In the first film, Mad Max, Max is a devoted husband, father, and police officer on the side of law and order in a society that is rapidly crumbling into violence and anarchy. Eventually, Max decides he’s had enough and tells his boss he wants to quit. When asked why, Max replies:

“You want to know the truth? I’m scared. It’s that rat circus out there. I’m beginning to enjoy it. Any longer out there, and I’m one of them, a terminal crazy, except I’ve got a bronze badge that says I’m one of the good guys.”

Max takes his family far away in hopes of finding some peace, but the violence of his world follows him, and kills his wife and son. Max snaps, and spends the rest of the film seeking revenge on the motorcycle gang responsible. Max is well into antihero territory, doing some very morally questionable things, and the film ends on a dark note.

In the second film, The Road Warrior, Max is now a wandering loner who has fallen further. In fact, he is barely distinguishable from the crazed gang members laying siege to a small band of people defending their oil refinery. He sits passively and watches as the terror unfolds, including the violent assaulting of some of the settlers. Only when he sees an opportunity to profit personally does Max intervene, bringing a wounded man back to the compound in exchange for some gasoline. Later, Max makes another offer to bring in a rig big enough to haul away a tanker full of fuel, but again sets the terms, because Max only really cares about himself and his own wants. While it’s a thrilling action packed film, we also see Max at his darkest point where he’s almost a villain.

It’s in the third film, Beyond Thunderdome, where Max’s story comes full circle. It’s some fifteen years later, when the world has been ravaged by nuclear war, and Max encounters a savage settlement called Bartertown, run by a woman known as Aunty Entity. Aunty speaks lovingly of Bartertown, which she built up from nothing, and a place where, in her view, hope exists. It’s a dangerous place, but it’s at least a semblance of society. “I’ll do anything to protect it,” she informs Max, “and today, it’s necessary to kill a man.”

Max, seeing an opportunity to regain his stolen property, agrees to do Aunty’s dirty work. However, Max refuses to follow through with the order to kill the intended victim (who is revealed to be a giant man with Down’s Syndrome). We begin to see Max’s humanity still under the surface. Nevertheless, Aunty exiles Max out into the desert to die. And he almost does die, until he is found by a group of children who have lived for years in a canyon oasis, and who believe Max is their Messiah come to take them to “Tomorrow-morrow land.”

Max, however, knows that no such place exists. From his perspective, these children represent the best hope of humanity that he has seen, and he doesn’t want to leave. When some of the older children decide to leave on their own, he physically stops them by brandishing a rifle—something the children have never seen before. Then, Max says the following:

“Now listen up! I’m the guy who keeps Mister Dead in his pocket. And I say we’re gonna stay here. And we’re gonna live a long time, and we’re gonna be grateful!”

It’s a reasonable sentiment from Max’s point of view, but it comes across as a clear threat. Max it seems, like Aunty, will do anything to protect what he sees as his future, even if that means threatening children with a gun. Max is still the antihero, looking out for his own self-interests, even as his intentions are becoming a tiny bit more altruistic.

Max’s moment of change occurs when some of the children sneak away during the night. Knowing the danger they will face in Bartertown, Max reluctantly agrees to go rescue them. In doing so, Max finally places his own needs secondary to the needs of others, and ultimately redeems himself. His sacrifice makes possible for many people to escape to safety, even as he himself is left behind. He has done something truly heroic at last.

Writing a strong and believable antihero is a challenge, but the payoff can be a incredibly complex character that will resonate with people for years. People will always be interested in characters that walk the line between right and wrong, who sometimes do the wrong things, and who they may love to hate. Tina Turner may have sung “We don’t need another hero,” but it may be that we need all the antiheroes we can get.

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Capturing Authentic Childhood Moments

Writing for children is both a joy and a challenge. As with any work of fiction, no matter how fantastical, characters still need to be grounded in more mundane, true-to-life experiences to build a relatable connection with readers and establish emotional resonance. Kids look for themselves in the books they read; they crave characters who are struggling with similar doubts and fears, trials and triumphs.

While I find it much more exciting to write about ghosts and magic and epic adventures, I’ve realized the importance of including plenty of smaller, more personal moments that explore a character’s complexities and vulnerabilities.

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Some experiences, though not necessarily unique to childhood, truly shape a child’s world. A change in family dynamics, friendships, home or school life, etc. can cause that whole world to shift, creating ripples that color every choice, every reaction. Even small events can have a powerful impact if they trigger emotions such as joy, pride, sorrow, fear, or embarrassment.

Think back to the moments from your own childhood, both good and bad, that are seared into your memory—the ones that influenced the things you love, the things you fear, the person you’ve become. Some memories are magical, others awkward or painful. Perhaps you can still feel the grass beneath your bare feet as you play hide and seek on a warm summer evening. You may still hear the sound of your parents fighting, or the buzz of the dentist’s drill as you had your first cavity filled.

As you invent experiences for your own young characters, here are a few possibilities to get you started:

  • Losing a beloved toy or comfort object
  • Fear of the dark
  • A visit to the doctor/dentist/orthodontist
  • First day of school/attending a new school
  • Moving to a new town
  • A best friend moving away
  • Evolving friend groups
  • Mean teachers—or exceptional ones
  • Homework or school projects
  • An embarrassing moment in front of peers
  • Bullies
  • First pet
  • First crush
  • Saving up money for a coveted item
  • A new baby in the house
  • Coping as the oldest/middle/youngest child
  • Parents divorcing or remarrying

It can be easy for adults to brush off the worries of children as simple or “no big deal,” because we forget. We lose perspective. That’s why it’s critical to talk to kids, observe, read, and create connections with their reality, their problems and struggles. Kids are masters at detecting authenticity—or the lack of it. We, as writers, can’t simply fake our way through. We have to get it right.

It’s too important not to.

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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

A Hero Worth Cheering On

Last month I had the privilege of speaking to sixth graders graduating from elementary school. Around this same time my debut novel was releasing. Writing this talk was a monumental task, as I had never given a commencement speech before. But my rambling thoughts turned out well enough that I want to share an abridged version with you. This is a more personal post than I typically contribute to Thinking Through Our Fingers, but much of what I said to those sixth graders applies to writers on the path to publication. The following is my revised speech.

Over my years of writing, I have learned that no matter what genre you read or write most components of storytelling stay the same. First, stories start with a main character. He or she has strengths and weaknesses as well as opinions and attitudes about life in general. The reader sympathizes with the main character and is interested in seeing what happens to them. He or she isn’t perfect. Main characters make mistakes and have fears, but they are someone readers care about and cheer on. Since art mimics life, for the time being, I’d like you to consider yourself a main character.

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The next story component is the main character’s goal. Their goal drives them forward and establishes to readers what is important in the story, not only to the main character but in their world. Every main character has something they want to accomplish, so I would like you to think of a goal for yourself. In the next year, what do you want to achieve more than anything? Roald Dahl said, “Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” Whatever your goal may be, think big. Don’t be afraid to believe in a little magic.

Now that you have your goal, hold onto it. Because we’re about to meet the next story component: the inciting event.

The inciting event propels the main character forward on a path they cannot turn back down. It’s when Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts or Percy Jackson sets out to find his mother. Think of the inciting incident as a door that locks behind you. The key to the inciting incident is that no one can shove the main character through the door. No one can make he or she want to go out and save the world. The main character must take that step on his own. But the thing that pushes him through that door, the personal incentive that drives him to take that step, is his goal. Remember that goal I asked you to make? That is your reason to go through that door and start on your path.

Our next component comprises of the bulk of the story, the part that everyone wants to read about in books or watch on TV but never experience in real life—conflict. Conflict is any obstacle that seeks to prevent the main character from reaching his or her goal. Think of your goal again, the one you want more than anything. Again, conflict is what will prevent you from achieving it. We all have rough days. At some point or another, you may even have a really bad day. And then it may get even worse. The ultimate conflict happens at the climax, which is when the very hardest, very worst thing you can imagine tries to stop you. What do you do when life gets hard? Do you give up?

Reflect over your past year. Think of one thing you did that you are really proud of. Was it always easy to continue? I’m certain it wasn’t, but you kept trying. You did the work. You put in the time. You believed in yourself. Your conflict did not put an end to your story.

The thing about conflict is that the hero pushes onward. Notice I said “hero”, because the main character of the story starts off as someone the reader sort of knows, sympathizes with, and roots for. But as the main character goes through trials and triumphs, over the course of those challenges, they become more than a character the reader sort of likes. They become a hero we cheer on to beat opposing forces and win. JK Rowling said, “It is our choices that make us what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” Perseverance over obstacles makes a hero.

Let’s recap. The components we’ve talked about so far are: the main character, the goal, the inciting incident, the conflict, and what comes next? The resolution, or the happily ever after. This is the end of the story when the hero celebrates their triumph.

One year from now, your resolution will be this: Did you reach your goal? Did you stick it through no matter what?

I wrote for nearly ten years before I became published. I wrote thousands and thousands of words. I completed several manuscripts. I was rejected dozens of times by literary agents and editors. I had a lot of conflict, but I also had a goal to become a published author. This wasn’t a year-long goal. As I said, it took me much longer. Your goal may be the same or different. But whatever it may be, you are the hero of your story. You are likeable, other people sympathize with you and understand what you’re going through. You are someone your family and friends are rooting for. You are someone we want to see succeed and live happily ever after. You are worth cheering on. No one is saying you have be perfect or get everything right. Neither can others attain your goal for you. You must go through that threshold by choice, travel down that path, and push onward. But you’ve already proven you have the courage to aspire to more, and your story isn’t finished so long as you keep trying.

Dr. Suess said, “You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So… get on your way!” I’d like to end by extending a challenge: Dream big. Think of a goal you want to achieve. Fight for it. Believe you can persevere. And don’t ever forget that you are worth cheering on.

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Emily R. King is a reader of everything and a writer of fantasy. Born in Canada and raised in the USA, she has perfected the use of “eh” and “y’all” and uses both interchangeably. Shark advocate, consumer of gummy bears, and islander at heart, Emily’s greatest interests are her four children. She’s a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and an active participant in her local writers’ community. She lives in Northern Utah with her family and their cantankerous cat. Visit Emily at emilyrking.com.

Believing Kermit: Lessons in Crafting Characters

Every writer strives to create characters that are memorable and multi-faceted, someone with whom their readers can relate to, root for, or root against. This is a tall order, especially when every character needs to also have a unique voice in the story. Very often—and this is especially true with newer writers—many of the characters sound too similar to each other, as though the writer were performing an amateur puppet show and only barely altering their own voice to suit each character. This can be a problem because readers don’t want to see behind the scenes of the story; they don’t want the curtain pulled back on the Wizard; they don’t want to see how the sausage is made. They just want to be immersed in the world that the author is presenting to them.

The puppet show metaphor is a helpful way to think about the relationship between writers and their characters and is a good reminder to make sure your characters sound and feel authentic. After all, every storyteller is essentially a puppeteer of sorts. After all, your characters don’t exist outside your mind, you control everything they do, and it is your voice that is speaking through them. So how do we avoid the problem of the low-budget puppet show in our storytelling? The answer may lie with perhaps the most famous puppet of all: Kermit the Frog.

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Jim Henson was a master storyteller and one of my personal heroes. Like millions of other kids, I grew up watching Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. For many of us, Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, Grover, and Kermit the Frog weren’t just brightly colored and fuzzy characters on the screen, they were some of our earliest teachers and friends. And even though we probably knew the Muppets weren’t the same as the “real” humans on those shows, we didn’t mind. We never “saw” the puppeteers; we only saw the characters we loved.

Jim Henson never made any pretensions about his puppetry skills, however. He never claimed to be a ventriloquist, and he never tried to hide the fact that his lips moved when he operated Kermit the Frog. Henson and Kermit made several appearances on The Tonight Show, and both Johnny Carson and the entire viewing audience could see Jim’s hand inside Kermit and see Jim’s lips moving as Kermit spoke. But here’s the thing: Johnny Carson didn’t look at Jim—he looked at Kermit. He spoke to Kermit as though he were real. And that’s because Kermit the Frog was so fully realized as a character by Jim Henson that he took on his own identity and had his own totally unique voice. We may see Jim Henson, but we believe in Kermit the Frog. The same is true of other Muppet characters that Henson voiced, including Dr. Teeth, Rowlf the Dog, the Swedish Chef, Waldorf, and Guy Smiley.

The same could be said of the Sesame Street Muppets. Each Muppet character is so well crafted and has so much depth that they feel real and unique. For instance, Big Bird is perpetually six years old, and he sees the world through a child’s perspective. He is happy, innocent, more than a bit naïve about the world, and is one of the show’s primary connections to the child watching at home. Big Bird is operated and voiced by Caroll Spinney, who also voices Oscar the Grouch, a character so far down the spectrum from Big Bird that the two could never be mistaken for each other. They are two vastly different characters with completely different voices, but they come from the same person.

Or consider Bert and Ernie, voiced by Frank Oz and Jim Henson, respectively. Bert likes gray pigeons and oatmeal, while Ernie loves his rubber duckie and playing the drums. Bert and Ernie’s dynamic and comedic timing rivals that of Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, but it was really the dynamic of Frank and Jim behind the scenes that made us laugh, just as it did when they would perform as Miss Piggy and Kermit (or as Grover and Kermit, or as Fozzie Bear and Kermit).

Though wildly different individually, the Sesame Street Muppets are all telling the same “story” to the child with the same voice: It’s okay to be a kid. Growing up isn’t easy, so here are a few things that will help you along the way. Also, let’s sing about the alphabet and count to twenty in Spanish.

The relationship between Jim Henson and the Muppets is an excellent ideal for writers to strive for. Kermit the Frog was, in a very real sense, an extension of Jim, and Kermit could often say and do things that Jim perhaps felt he couldn’t with his regular voice. Yet Jim Henson used his Muppets’ voices to weave wildly imaginative tales that have stuck with us a generation later. Through his characters’ unique voices, it was really Jim’s voice that told the rest of us lovers and dreamers that the world was a beautiful place, and that maybe the Rainbow Connection wasn’t that far off.

As writers, we need to get inside our characters heads and hearts in the same way they are already in ours. We need to figure out what makes them tick, what they love and hate, and what makes them unique. That will only come as we spend time with our characters. We must talk with our characters, and perhaps even more importantly, we must listen to them. Then we can let their voices ring out clearly and in harmony with our own. It’s one of the hardest balancing acts that a writer can do, and the truth is, we’re all going to struggle with it for a long time. But that’s okay. And it’s even okay if your readers sense your voice coming through your characters. So long as your characters are as honest and open as Kermit, your readers will believe them. And they will believe you.

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

Sparking Empathy: How to create character connection

Several years ago I dragged my nine-year-old son to a therapist. Two years after losing the grandparents we’d lived with for most of his life, he wasn’t coping. Or rather, as I learned through his sessions, the coping he’d learned during their illnesses and deaths had now become unhealthy mechanisms for engaging the world. He was disconnected.
Through family counseling, I discovered my own unhealthy coping mechanisms, defenses tooled in my childhood to deal with the constantly hovering specter of my father’s cancer and imminent death. I remember sitting on the therapist’s slipcovered couch during one of my son’s sessions, picking at a nub in the fabric, unable to say the word “vulnerable.” I literally stumbled over it. It twisted my tongue each time I tried to spit it out as I worked through my own struggles, frustrated to find I wasn’t as heart-whole as I had believed.

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Some part of my brain already understood what empathy expert Dr. Brené Brown’s research has now codified: vulnerability is the state people fight because it forces us to acknowledge our fears. However, according to Brown, vulnerability is essential in forging real human connection. She says, “We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.” When people occupy an emotional space where they can connect to others, it’s because they have come to believe in their own worthiness. Brown refers to these people as “the Wholehearted.”

Characters must be vulnerable for readers to connect to them and ultimately experience a phenomenon I call “Reader Wholeheartedness.” It’s the sense of fullness and resolution when the reader recognizes the protagonist’s achievement of Wholeheartedness, the point where the protagonist engages her community from a place of worthiness. Reader Wholeheartedness is easy to confuse with catharsis, often defined as an emotional purge—especially of sadness—through literature or art. However, here I use the definition of catharsis meaning “a purification or purgation that brings about a spiritual renewal.” Reader Wholeheartedness is a step before catharsis, and a key part of a specific vulnerability sequence which transitions the reader from an initial character connection to a deeper sense of catharsis or spiritual renewal.

While studying my own reaction to character-driven literature, I discovered my catharsis does not hinge on the protagonist’s vulnerability—it hinges on the vulnerability of the character the protagonist feels most disconnected from, a character we’ll call the Emotional Antagonist. This can be different from the story antagonist. For example, in a classic hero’s journey, the story antagonist may be the dragon standing between the hero and the treasure, but the Emotional Antagonist may be the hero’s disapproving father who is eventually won over.

Resolution happens when the protagonist achieves Wholeheartedness through a sequence of increasingly vulnerable moments and increased connection, but catharsis occurs when the narrative takes the extra step of restoring the last broken connection with the Emotional Antagonist. When this happens, the protagonist has already recognized her own worthiness; however, the reader sees it acknowledged by the Emotional Antagonist when the Emotional Antagonist makes himself vulnerable as a bid for the protagonist’s recognition of his worthiness, which is granted. This releases the final story tension and grants a “spiritual” renewal.

This isn’t necessary for every story. A reader can experience Wholeheartedness without catharsis, which is common in young adult novels. However, that extra moment of catharsis is particularly well-suited for middle-grade novels because it eliminates ambiguity, a story quality better suited for slightly older readers. Catharsis through character vulnerability follows this sequence:

  1. The protagonist must have a sense of unworthiness and a shield to hide it. The shield must reflect the character’s personality and relate specifically to her vulnerability.
  2. The protagonist exposes moments of vulnerability that call forth new connections and build a sense of community with everyone but her Emotional Antagonist.
  3. The protagonist attempts to establish an emotional connection to the Emotional Antagonist who then rejects her.
  4. The protagonist reaches Wholeheartedness despite rejection.
  5. The Emotional Antagonist is drawn to the protagonist’s newfound Wholeheartedness and shows his vulnerability as he seeks connection to the protagonist, which reinforces the protagonist’s sense of worthiness.

Madeleine L’Engle said, “When we were children, we used to think that when were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.” Children live in a state of vulnerability. Dr. Brown notes, “Kids are clumsy in their efforts to hide fear and self-doubt,” which is why the characters we encounter in children’s literature often become enduring companions as we grow into adulthood. We love the characters for their transparency and fall for them further as they take brave journeys toward Wholeheartedness.

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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and shoe addict. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Her seventh novel, Southern Charmed, released in October. Melanie is pursuing a Masters degree in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin..