Speaking of Hair…

A couple of weeks ago, I started down a long, windy road of discussion about what makes a book a good book. If you want to check that out, it’s right here: Grab ’em by the hair and don’t let go!

As promised, today I’m thinking about characters. Please, keep in mind that I’m not an expert (nor do I play one on TV). I’m just a writer trying to figure out how to be a better writer. If you’re looking for some thoughtful and insightful commentary about character building, you should totally check out R.G. Emanuelle’s blog post The Soul of a character. R.G. is super smart, and so she makes super-smart observations. Unlike me, she is qualified to break it down like a boss.

Still, super smart or not, I know what I like. For example, I have mad respect for Charles Dickens because he is super quotable and managed to earn a living as a writer. Not only that, but his work has made a lasting impression on college campuses all over the place via every Freshman lit class ever.

The one thing Dickens lacked? The ability (or perhaps the insight) to create a believable, three-dimensional, living and breathing female character. Are there women in his novels? Sure. Are they flat as a piece of cardboard. Absolutely.

I’m not sure what horrifies me more, that Dickens might have seen women as two-dimensional imitations of real human beings, or the possibility that Dickens had perfect insight and women of his era really were that dependent upon the men in their lives, first their fathers and then their husbands, to think for them.

Knowing what I know about women, I’m going with the first option. I leave room for the possibility that women let men think they were thinking for them, when in fact the women were running the world via a kind word and fluttering eyelashes. Yeah, that’s what I’m going with.

So, that’s what I don’t like. I want my characters meaty and full figured, with depth and range of emotion that isn’t always pretty, but still makes the think. I want characters who leave me breathless and haunt me for the rest of my life.

I grew up in the middle-of-nowhere Idaho. I rode the bus several miles to school each morning and got free lunch because we were so poor. Our house was far out in the country, a thrown-together shack with a curtain where the bathroom door should have been. My mom worked hard and looked exhausted all the time. She yelled and spanked, sometimes with my dad’s leather belt, but she never cussed and I don’t remember her ever crying, even when my dad was killed.

She was strong and smart and wanted me to grow up to be strong and smart just like her. No matter how tired she was, or how much she worked, she always, always found time to take me to the library. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but we were even farther from the nearest town than we were from the elementary school (West Canyon Elementary – Go, Falcons!).

The library, that’s where I met Ponyboy, Soda Pop, and their older brother Darryl. When S.E. Hinton was fifteen and a Sophomore in high school, she started writing her award-winning, young-adult novel, The Outsiders. She did the bulk of the writing her Junior year, the same year she nearly failed her creative writing course at school.

What did a poor girl from rural Idaho share in common with a greasy-haired orphan from the wrong side of the tracks in Oklahoma City? As it turned out, nothing and yet everything.

In Ponyboy, I found a companion spirit, an idealist who longed for everything to change, yet was realistic enough to accept things as they were. I wanted to sit with him in dark movie theaters when nobody in his family would. I wanted to chase away the rich kids who jumped him. And I wanted to protect him and his best friend Johnny as they hid in that church wishing there was a way to take it all back.

I wanted to know him. Hell, some days I wanted to be him. To this day, I’ve never forgotten him.

What makes The Outsiders, and Ponyboy, so special? I can tell you that it wasn’t a matter of mechanics. Hinton wrote the book in first-person, present tense, my least favorite style to read (Although, I didn’t know that back then, when I read the book for the first time.). And the writing is a little loose, a little wild. But maybe that was intentional given the subject matter.

Still, Hinton infused a soul into Ponyboy. She somehow made this scared and shaking little boy trying to be a man, brave enough to see himself and his friends with frank clarity and honesty. Every sentence has a bit of insight woven into it, sometimes big, sometimes small. And, as you’re reading, you realize that Ponyboy is more real, more alive, than the cousin you’ve played with every weekend of your entire life.

If you’ve never spent time hangin’ with Ponyboy and the rest of The Outsiders, it’s time to remedy that. Amazon has a sample from The Outsiders HERE. Take a moment to introduce yourself, then come back and tell me what you think about Hinton’s simple, yet exquisitely beautiful, character building. And, for good measure, share your thoughts on what goes into creating a memorable character.

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15 thoughts on “Speaking of Hair…

  1. My first thought was, Oh no! Don’t start right off with a description of yourself! 🙂

    You’re right, the writing is a bit loose and wild. Bit of info-dumping. But she, or maybe he, had me with the preference for watching movies alone. Right here, “I usually lone it anyway,” I was hooked. You probably got hooked by some other line.

    I think it’s empathy. The character for us, us for the character. You don’t have to have the same background or even gender to connect with another human being–and well-written fictional characters become fully formed human beings, right?

    Love your take on Dickens’ women. It’s been a long time since I’ve read him.

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    1. Elaine!

      First, regarding Dickens, at the time, I thought I must be broken. If his work is considered literary genius and a must read among the classics, surely I was missing something. Big Time. Later, after I read Poe’s one and only novel (crap) and Crime and Punishment, I realized that I’m not required to like everything. While I love Holden Caulfield’s slipping-into-insanity version of events, Dostoevsky’s take on a similar theme left me nonplussed for having read it.

      I agree. Empathy on the part of the reader plays a huge, important role in her love (or not) for a character. Sometimes the pieces that make up the character are messy and not put together with a nice, tidy bow. That, I think, makes it all the more confusing. How do you quantify something that exists only in the ether, such as the soul of a character? Yes, it’s the culmination of the words the author uses, but it’s very much a case of the whole exceeding the sum of the parts. And, really, that just doesn’t make sense. We’re told 2+2=4. It’s never supposed to equal five.

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      1. “Sometimes the pieces that make up the character are messy and not put together with a nice, tidy bow.” Yes! Just like real people. How many friends or relatives do we have a love/hate relationship with, or one that changes over time. Translating that to the page (and only a few hundred at that), is the challenge.

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  2. I was literally, and literarily, thinking of this very topic this morning. I recently read two books that are outside my usual choices- a sports related romance and a sci-fi book. I liked both much more than anticipated. In fact, I stayed up too late a couple of nights because I couldn’t let the characters go yet. In thinking about why I enjoyed these two books, I realized it was because I enjoyed the characters. The stories had the usual sports and sci-fi pieces that are not as interesting to me, but the characters were real enough that I was invested in them. I thought about them after I put the book down. I want to know what happens next. Thankfully both books have sequels :).

    Good observation on Dickens. I didn’t get very far in Great Expectations because I couldn’t bear to read another word about Miss Havisham. However, when Jasper Fforde recreated Miss Havisham, I loved his characterization. That is a Miss Havisham I can read about.

    The Outsiders stuck with me, too :).

    When a character is well-written she is three-dimensional enough that I would know what to say to her if I were invited to have coffee. She has a personality and presence that go beyond the page. It’s easy to fill in the details that don’t make it to the page because her strengths, weaknesses and individuality come through in what we do see. The best characters make my facial expressions change when I read about them (much to the delight of my children).

    Great post today- lots to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ann!

      I LOVE LOVE LOVE when I unexpectedly fall in love with a book because the characters are so compelling. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I’m a lifelong worshipper at that alter of that particular author. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      Dickens, bless him, I hope he didn’t treat the women in his word as if they were characters from one of his books. Mercy.

      You totally hit the nail on the head with the coffee-talk comment. Do you know how many times I’ve walked away from a book wishing that I could call up one of the characters and invite her to lunch? Or out for a beer, depending upon her tastes and my mood.

      Thanks for chiming in. Next time, I think I’ll tackle setting. Time to bust out some Poppy Z. Brite.

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  3. Thanks for sharing those personal details of your life, Jove. Our experiences are part of what makes us who we are and what we do with ourselves. When life starts off hard, it says even more about you when you thrive. You’ve obviously done a lot.

    And you flatter me. 🙂

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    1. That’s just the tip of the crazy-cult ice burg. I loved and respected my mom fiercely. She taught me the value of REAL things, like people and family. And, while I appreciate the things I’ve managed to accumulate, I’d be just fine without them so long as my family was with me. I know it sounds trite, but it’s true. My kids give me a reason to try harder, and my Tara gives me the vision to know where I’m headed.

      And, I wouldn’t dream of flattering you. I just call it like I see it. Don’t think I’m going to start being nice just because you emoji’d me.

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  4. I knew I liked you, Jove, from previous posts, but now I REALLY like and respect you! I’ ve been using the novel, The Outsiders, six classes per day for the last 12 years or so. Year after year students say it is the best book they’ve ever read. You hit the nail on the head when you discussed character! Students can identify with Ponyboy, Johnny, Dally, Cherry and the others, not so much because they mirror their own lives, but perhaps because S.E. Hinton made them such round, dynamic characters. Her development of the main characters make them seem ‘real’ and therefore connections are made that last a lifetime! Fantastic choice to show, not tell, about character development 👏👏👏. A+ for you!

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    1. Woo! An A+! I’m totally printing this out and sticking it to my refrigerator. I’m so glad to hear you use Hinton in your class. Her work changed my perspective. I found the same affinity with Wilson Rawles’s Where the Red Fern Grows. Completely different setting. Equally compelling characters. What other books do you use in your class?

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      1. LOL…I’ve used Where the Red Fern Grows too but had too many tears😳 My second fav is Freak The Mighty by Rodman Philbrick. I also use Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Hoot, The Giver, and Rules by Cynthia Lord which is about autism, self-discovery, friendship, and family.

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  5. I will comment – not because I am a writer with any character-expertise – but because I just finished re-reading “Rest Home Runaways,” by Clifford Henderson, and her characters are so real, true and multidimensional that I am just awed by her writing. I would say, I may not know how to do this (create these live characters) but I know them when I see them! And, it is all of her works – I just mentioned “Rest Home Runaways” because of my re-reading it this weekend.

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    1. Lynn!

      Agreed! Cliffi creates some amazing characters. My favorite book of hers is still Middle of Somewhere. She is super talented and has amazing comedic timing.

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      1. Oh, yes! Her humor! “Spanking New” was a hoot!

        And, I love that her humor is what I call “gentle” humor. So much, too much, ‘humor’ is at the expense of someone or some group and one reason I read lesfic is to avoid that kind of destructive ‘humor.’

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  6. Okay, Jove nudged me to take a look at this thread. Wow. Such a big topic: How to draw characters that readers relate to. I’m obviously going to have to read The Outsiders. Sounds wonderful. And so so true about Dickens’ women. Although one of my favorite characters of all time is Miss Havisham! Talk about heartbreak!

    And Lynn: I am super honored that you appreciate my characters. Wow. I need to hear that right now. It will keep me going on my current project.

    People often try to guess which character I am in my books. They’ll say: You’re Cora, right? You’re Eadie. But I’m Mac, and Piggin, Spanky, and Roy Peterson—all my characters. I breathe when they do, cry when they do. I’m kind of that way in life too, seeing myself in others, seeing others in myself. Maybe that’s the empathy Elaine is talking about. Or maybe I’m just a weirdo.

    Anyway, thanks for the stimulating conversation. Always love stopping in on Women and Words

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