Welcome back! In this lesson, we will be focusing on a single protagonist from one of your already written short stories or a section from an already written short story, no more than 3,000 words. We’ll be pulling some craft essentials from Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft and digging into your protagonist in multiple approaches and writing exercises. By the end of the third week, you will have used the exercises to revise and submit the revised short story or section—again, 3,000 words or less.
This week, we will focus on direct methods of character presentation. Next week, we will focus on indirect methods of character presentation. The third week, we will focus on final revision of these explorations for submission to our workshop group. So saddle up. This will be a character boot camp. If you think you know your protagonist now, you will BE your protagonist by week three.
*While you are completing your character exercise this week, I will be reading and making notes on your individual manuscripts that you have submitted for Week 1. Please make sure you read and comment on your workshop peers’ Week 1 submissions. The act of reading and commenting on another writer’s work is helpful to that writer, sure, but it is even more helpful to the reader/editor. This activity will help you further cement your preferences as reader and writer. You’ll become a better self-editor, and in literary writing, it is in revision that the art forms. First drafts are raw talent. Revisions are the craft and art. True writers are formed in the practice of revision.
My comments will be detailed and notated. Your comments can be more general, no more than a short paragraph. Notes and comments are due by the upcoming Sunday, 6 pm and should be uploaded to the Week 1 forum topic. This will be our general submission and feedback schedule each week. I look forward to reading your work! Best, Rae
Direct Methods of Character Presentation Using “Tenth of December”
EX: But Mom was a good egg. A reliable counsellor and steady hand of guidance. She had a munificent splay of long silver hair and a raspy voice, though she didn’t smoke and was even a vegan. She’d never been a biker chick, although some of the in-school cretins claimed she resembled one.”
EX: Stupid cheaters. They’d switched spouses, abandoned the switched spouses, fled together to California. Had they been gay? Or just swingers? Gay swingers?”
EX: “Your message is good,” Allen had said. “And you are incredibly well spoken. You can do this thing.”
EX: The pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms hulked to the mudroom closet and requisitioned Dad’s white coat. Then requisitioned the boots he’d spray-painted white.
ACTION: Movement, Discover & Decision
EX: Here was the soccer field. Across the field, his house sat like a big sweet animal. It was amazing. He’d made it. He’d fallen into the pond and lived to tell the tale. He had somewhat cried, yes, but had then simply laughed off this moment of mortal weakness and made his way home, look of wry bemusement on his face, having, it must be acknowledged, benefitted from the much appreciated assistance of a certain aged—
With a shock he remembered the old guy. What the heck? An image flashed of the old guy standing bereft and blue-skinned in his tighty-whities like a P.O.W. abandoned at the barbed wire due to no room on the truck. Or a sad traumatized stork bidding farewell to its young.
He’d bolted. He’d bolted on the old guy. Hadn’t even given him a thought.
What a chickenshittish thing to do.
He had to go back. Right now. Help the old guy hobble out. But he was so tired. He wasn’t sure he could do it. Probably the old guy was fine. Probably he had some sort of old-guy plan.
EX: Eber sat slumped against the boat.
What a change in the weather. People were going around with parasols and so forth in the open part of the park. There was a merry-go-round and a band and a gazebo. People were frying food on the backs of certain merry-go-round horses. And yet, on others, kids were riding. How did they know? Which horses were hot? For now there was still snow, but snow couldn’t last long in this bomb.
If you close your eyes, that’s the end. You know that, right?
*Thought need not be set off in italics. Character thought can be found in both this example and the previous Action example.
[tabs type=”horizontal”][tab title=”Reading Assignment”]
“Tenth of December”
by George Saunders
Read the Entire Work for Free at The New Yorker
[dropcap]The[/dropcap] pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms hulked to the mudroom closet and requisitioned Dad’s white coat. Then requisitioned the boots he’d spray-painted white. Painting the pellet gun white had been a no. That was a gift from Aunt Chloe. Every time she came over he had to haul it out so she could make a big stink about the woodgrain.
Today’s assignation: walk to pond, ascertain beaver dam. Likely he would be detained. By that species that lived amongst the old rock wall. They were small but, upon emerging, assumed certain proportions. And gave chase. This was just their methodology. His aplomb threw them loops. He knew that. And revelled it. He would turn, level the pellet gun, intone: Are you aware of the usage of this human implement?
Safe inside the rock wall, the shot one would go, Guys, look at my butt.
As a group, all would look at Gzeemon’s butt, exchanging sullen glances of: Gzeemon shall indeed be limping for the next nine million years, poor bloke.
Because yes: Nethers tended to talk like that guy in “Mary Poppins.”
Which naturally raised some mysteries as to their origin here on Earth.
Detaining him was problematic for the Nethers. He was wily. Plus could not fit through their rock-wall opening. When they tied him up and went inside to brew their special miniaturizing potion—Wham!—he would snap their antiquated rope with a move from his self-invented martial-arts system, Toi Foi, a.k.a. Deadly Forearms. And place at their doorway an implacable rock of suffocation, trapping them inside.
Later, imagining them in their death throes, taking pity on them, he would come back, move the rock.
Blimey, one of them might say from withal. Thanks, guv’nor. You are indeed a worthy adversary.
Sometimes there would be torture. They would make him lie on his back looking up at the racing clouds while they tortured him in ways he could actually take. They tended to leave his teeth alone. Which was lucky. He didn’t even like to get a cleaning. They were dunderheads in that manner. They never messed with his peen and never messed with his fingernails. He’d just abide there, infuriating them with his snow angels. Sometimes, believing it their coup de grâce, not realizing he’d heard this since time in memorial from certain in-school cretins, they’d go, Wow, we didn’t even know Robin could be a boy’s name. And chortle their Nether laughs.
Today he had a feeling that the Nethers might kidnap Suzanne Bledsoe, the new girl in homeroom. She was from Montreal. He just loved the way she talked. So, apparently, did the Nethers, who planned to use her to repopulate their depleted numbers and bake various things they did not know how to bake.
All suited up now, NASA. Turning awkwardly to go out door.
Affirmative. We have your coördinates. Be careful out there, Robin.
Whoa, cold, dang.
Duck thermometer read ten. And that was without windchill. That made it fun. That made it real. A green Nissan was parked where Poole dead-ended into the soccer field. Hopefully the owner was not some perv he would have to outwit.
Or a Nether in the human guise.
Bright, bright blue and cold. Crunch went the snow as he crossed the soccer field. Why did cold such as this give a running guy a headache? Likely it was due to Prominent Windspeed Velocity.
The path into the woods was as wide as one human. It seemed the Nether had indeed kidnapped Suzanne Bledsoe. Damn him! And his ilk. Judging by the single set of tracks, the Nether appeared to be carrying her. Foul cad. He’d better not be touching Suzanne inappropriately while carrying her. If so, Suzanne would no doubt be resisting with untamable fury.
This was concerning, this was very concerning.
When he caught up to them, he would say, Look, Suzanne, I know you don’t know my name, having misaddressed me as Roger that time you asked me to scoot over, but nevertheless I must confess I feel there is something to us. Do you feel the same?
Suzanne had the most amazing brown eyes. They were wet now, with fear and sudden reality.
Stop talking to her, mate, the Nether said.
I won’t, he said. And, Suzanne? Even if you don’t feel there is something to us, rest assured I will still slay this fellow and return you home. Where do you live again? Over in El Cirro? By the water tower? Those are some nice houses back there.
Well, that’s nice to hear, he said. Thank you for saying that. I know I’m not the thinnest.
The thing about girls? Suzanne said. Is we are more content-driven.
Will you two stop already? the Nether said. Because now is the time for your death. Deaths.
Well, now is certainly the time for somebody’s death, Robin said.
The twerpy thing was you never really got to save anyone. Last summer there’d been a dying raccoon out here. He’d thought of lugging it home so Mom could call the vet. But up close it was too scary. Raccoons being actually bigger than they appear in cartoons. And this one looked like a potential biter. So he ran home to get it some water at least. Upon his return, he saw where the raccoon had done some apparent last-minute thrashing. That was sad. He didn’t do well with sad. There had perchance been some pre-weeping, by him, in the woods.
Well, I don’t know, he said modestly.
Here was the old truck tire. Where the high-school kids partied. Inside the tire, frosted with snow, were three beer cans and a wadded-up blanket.
You probably like to party, the Nether had cracked to Suzanne moments earlier as they passed this very spot.
No, I don’t, Suzanne said. I like to play. And I like to hug.
Hoo boy, the Nether said. Sounds like Dullsville.
Somewhere there is a man who likes to play and hug, Suzanne said.
He came out of the woods now to the prettiest vista he knew. The pond was a pure frozen white. It struck him as somewhat Switzerlandish. Someday he would know for sure. When the Swiss threw him a parade or whatnot.
Here the Nether’s tracks departed from the path, as if he had contemplatively taken a moment to gaze at the pond. Perhaps this Nether was not all bad. Perhaps he was having a debilitating conscience attack vis-à-vis the valiantly struggling Suzanne atop his back. At least he seemed to somewhat love nature.
Then the tracks returned to the path, wound around the pond, and headed up Lexow Hill.
What was this strange object? A coat? On the bench? The bench the Nethers used for their human sacrifices?
No accumulated snow on coat. Inside of coat still slightly warm.
Ergo: the recently discarded coat of the Nether.
This was some strange juju. This was an intriguing conundrum, if he had ever encountered one. Which he had. Once, he’d found a bra on the handlebars of a bike. Once, he’d found an entire untouched steak dinner on a plate behind Fresno’s. And hadn’t eaten it. Though it had looked pretty good.
Something was afoot.
Then he beheld, halfway up Lexow Hill, a man.
Coatless, bald-headed man. Super skinny. In what looked like pajamas. Climbing plodfully, with tortoise patience, bare white arms sticking out of his p.j. shirt like two bare white branches sticking out of a p.j. shirt. Or grave.
What kind of person leaves his coat behind on a day like this? The mental kind, that was who. This guy looked sort of mental. Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa.
Dad had once said, Trust your mind, Rob. If it smells like shit but has writing across it that says Happy Birthday and a candle stuck down in it, what is it?
Is there icing on it? he’d said.
Dad had done that thing of squinting his eyes when an answer was not quite there yet.
Something was wrong here. A person needed a coat. Even if the person was a grownup. The pond was frozen. The duck thermometer said ten. If the person was mental, all the more reason to come to his aid, as had not Jesus said, Blessed are those who help those who cannot help themselves, but are too mental, doddering, or have a disability?
He snagged the coat off the bench.
It was a rescue. A real rescue, at last, sort of.
[dropcap]Ten[/dropcap] minutes earlier, Don Eber had paused at the pond to catch his breath.
He was so tired. What a thing. Holy moly. When he used to walk Sasquatch out here they’d do six times around the pond, jog up the hill, tag the boulder on top, sprint back down.
Better get moving, said one of two guys who’d been in discussion in his head all morning.
That is, if you’re still set on the boulder idea, the other said.
Which still strikes us as kind of fancy-pants.
Seemed like one guy was Dad and the other Kip Flemish.
Stupid cheaters. They’d switched spouses, abandoned the switched spouses, fled together to California. Had they been gay? Or just swingers? Gay swingers? The Dad and Kip in his head had acknowledged their sins and the three of them had struck a deal: he would forgive them for being possible gay swingers and leaving him to do Soap Box Derby alone, with just Mom, and they would consent to giving him some solid manly advice.
He wants it to be nice.
This was Dad now. It seemed Dad was somewhat on his side.
Nice? Kip said. That is not the word I would use.
A cardinal zinged across the day.
It was amazing. Amazing, really. He was young. He was fifty-three. Now he’d never deliver his major national speech on compassion. What about going down the Mississippi in a canoe? What about living in an A-frame near a shady creek with the two hippie girls he’d met in 1968 in that souvenir shop in the Ozarks, when Allen, his stepfather, wearing those crazy aviators, had bought him a bag of fossil rocks? One of the hippie girls had said that he, Eber, would be a fox when he grew up, and would he please be sure to call her at that time? Then the hippie girls had put their tawny heads together and giggled at his prospective foxiness. And that had never—
That had somehow never—
Sister Val had said, Why not shoot for being the next J.F.K.? So he had run for class president. Allen had bought him a Styrofoam straw boater. They’d sat together, decorating the hatband with Magic Markers. WIN WITH EBER! ON THE BACK: GROOVY! Allen had helped him record a tape. Of a little speech. Allen had taken that tape somewhere and come back with thirty copies, “to pass around.”
And he’d done it. He’d won. Allen had thrown him a victory party. A pizza party. All the kids had come.
Kindest man ever. Had taken him swimming. Had taken him to découpage. Had combed out his hair so patiently that time he came home with lice. Never a harsh, etc., etc.
Not so once the suffering begat. Began. God damn it. More and more his words. Askew. More and more his words were not what he would hoped.
Once the suffering began, Allen had raged. Said things no one should say. To Mom, to Eber, to the guy delivering water. Went from a shy man, always placing a reassuring hand on your back, to a diminished pale figure in a bed, shouting CUNT!
Except with some weird New England accent, so it came out KANT!
The first time Allen had shouted KANT! there followed a funny moment during which he and Mom looked at each other to see which of them was being called KANT. But then Allen amended, for clarity: KANTS!
So it was clear he meant both of them. What a relief.
They’d cracked up.
Jeez, how long had he been standing here? Daylight was waiting.
I honestly didn’t know what to do. But he made it so simple.
Took it all on himself.
So what else is new?
This was Jodi and Tommy now.
Big day today.
I mean, sure, it would have been nice to have a chance to say a proper goodbye.
But at what cost?
Exactly. And see—he knew that.
He was a father. That’s what a father does.
Eases the burdens of those he loves.
Saves the ones he loves from painful last images that might endure for a lifetime.
Soon Allen had become THAT. And no one was going to fault anybody for avoiding THAT. Sometimes he and Mom would huddle in the kitchen. Rather than risk incurring the wrath of THAT. Even THAT understood the deal. You’d trot in a glass of water, set it down, say, very politely, Anything else, Allen? And you’d see THAT thinking, All these years I was so good to you people and now I am merely THAT? Sometimes the gentle Allen would be inside there, too, indicating, with his eyes, Look, go away, please go away, I am trying so hard not to call you KANT!
Rail-thin, ribs sticking out.
Catheter taped to dick.
Waft of shit smell.
You are not Allen and Allen is not you.
So Molly had said.
As for Dr. Spivey, he couldn’t say. Wouldn’t say. Was busy drawing a daisy on a Post-it. Then finally said, Well, honestly? As these things grow, they can tend to do weird things. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be terrible. Had one guy? Just always craved him a Sprite.
That’s how they got you. You thought, Maybe I’ll just crave me a Sprite. Next thing you knew, you were THAT, shouting KANT!, shitting your bed, swatting at the people who were scrambling to clean you.
No sirree bob.
Wednesday he’d fallen out of the med-bed again. There on the floor in the dark it had come to him: I could spare them.
Spare us? Or spare you?
Get thee behind me.
Get thee behind me, sweetie.
A breeze sent down a sequence of linear snow puffs from somewhere above. Beautiful. Why were we made just so, to find so many things that happened every day pretty?
He took off his coat.
Took off his hat and gloves, stuffed the hat and gloves in a sleeve of the coat, left the coat on the bench.
This way they’d know. They’d find the car, walk up the path, find the coat.
It was a miracle. That he’d got this far. Well, he’d always been strong. Once, he’d run a half-marathon with a broken foot. After his vasectomy he’d cleaned the garage, no problem.
He’d waited in the med-bed for Molly to go off to the pharmacy. That was the toughest part. Just calling out a normal goodbye.
His mind veered toward her now, and he jerked it back with a prayer: Let me pull this off. Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling.
Let. Let me do it cling.
1. Choose a short story or excerpt of a short story, 3,000 words or less, that you’ve already written and is STILL IN PROCESS. (If you have nothing on your desk right now and want to write a new draft, okay, but you’ll have more time this week to consider the craft technique if you use an already drafted short story. You can also use a novel excerpt or personal essay if that is your focus currently. Character/subject presentation is important to narrative regardless of length and fiction or nonfiction form.)
2. Identify the section, a paragraph or less, in which the narrator first describes your protagonist—this character that will go through the most significant change throughout the narrative arc. This character will also be going through internal conflict of some sort—i.e. character versus self.
3. Rewrite this character description in each of the above forms: dialogue (summary, indirect, direct), appearance, action, thought.
4. Now, rewrite, again, but from the PoV of the antagonist of the story.
By the end of the exercise, you will have 14 versions of this protagonist’s description. You will submit only the 14 exercises, NOT the full story manuscript. Not yet.
Which of the character rewrites strikes you as most organic to not only the narrative but also your voice? Which feels more right? Did any of the rewrites give you additional information you may have already suspected but hadn’t quite excavated yet? (Please submit in the Week 2 Forum Topic.)