E. M. Everett
(From the forthcoming book Writing the Easy way)
When I'm working on a novel, I often hold off on doing much characterization of peripheral characters until after I've got a scene pretty well worked out. Why? Well, for one reason, I don't know how fully to develop these characters until I've decided how important a role they will play in the story. A second reason is that when writing my first draft, I prefer to think through the action and dialogue of a scene before fleshing out the characters. To me, developing characters fully seems like a different process, part of what I call the enriching phase.
As an example, let's look at a scene I was working on the other day. In this scene, the protagonist, a soldier, arrives late for his job in an Army warehouse in Saigon. The sergeant in charge is waiting for him. The story is being told in first-person, so on the first draft I simply used the first-person narrator to say the sergeant chewed him out before he finally let him go to work. I purposely didn't develop the sergeant character because I still didn't know how important a role I wanted him to play. Eventually, I realized I could use the sergeant later in the novel as a major antagonist. That meant he had to be fully developed as a real meany, and because it would be quite a while before the reader would see him in action again, I had to make him memorable.
For that reason, I decided to rewrite the opening of the scene to immediately bring the reader's attention to the sergeant.
At the warehouse, Sergeant "Fart-Ass" Farkas is waiting for me. He's leaning against the wall at the clock-in station, arms folded, nailing me with his hard-ass eyes.
Okay, now that the reader's attention is focused on the sergeant, I can start the scene, showing his interaction with the protagonist. During their interaction, I can give the reader a lot more information about the sergeant by providing protagonist's thoughts about him (which also gives the reader more information about the protagonist).
When I try to sign in, the sergeant stops me by putting a fat hand against my chest. "Notsa fast, boay. Ya'll er gawd damn late." He's exaggerating his drawl, especially the "ya'll er" and the "gawd damn," drawing the words out, really getting into his slow, but always loud, I'm-from-Arkansas-and-damn-proud-of-it mode. It's his way of letting us "Yankees" know that he knows we aren't a damn bit smarter than he is, no matter how he talks.
Then comes the part where I have to stand at attention while he has his fun dressing me down, throwing every ridiculous insult he knows (and he knows a lot of them) at me. I'm standing at attention, as required, but I'm adding a touch of shoulder slouch and bit of bent-knee sag to make sure he realizes it's a "how-long-is-this-going-to-take, semi-defiant kind of attention.
Notice that the style of the novel is to "see" characters through the perceptions of the protagonist. Because this novel is being written in memoir style, the looking-back, first-person narrator can even occasionally add a bit of additional information with parenthetical asides to the reader.
Notice also that in this scene some of the characterization is done by portraying the sergeant's speech patterns. However, I don't think it's a good idea to overdo vernacular speech (a little vernacular goes a long way). For that reason, I used the first-person narrator to summarize or paraphrase most of the sergeant's speech.
The scene then continues, with the sergeant really getting into the dressing down.
The sarge goes on and on, laying out all the reasons I'll never make a good soldier (most of which I have to admit I can't really disagree with), and he's making sure my dressing down is plenty loud enough for everyone in the place to hear, implying that everything he's saying goes for all the other inexperienced young soldiers in the warehouse too.
Then, of course, he finally gets around to the usual BIG threat, how if "you people" keep on gettin' here late he's gonna hafta send "you boays" back to the work placement officer. At this point, he always pauses for a couple of seconds, trying to make what he's about to say feel really, really dramatic. He takes a breath (which is good because he's getting so red in the face it looks like he's about to tip over), and starts laying his same old somber pronouncement upon me: "And ya'll know wot that mains. It'll be the jungle fer ya." He shakes his head and looks down like he's real sad to be thinking about how something so terrible like that might happen to me, pretending to be oh so sorry to see me lose my safe and secure job in Saigon, a job that is the only thing that's keeping me from getting sent to the front lines, the jungles up north, where I'm so dumb that there's not a doubt in the world that I'd be damned sure to get myself killed on the very first day I saw action.
Notice that I'm still mostly paraphrasing the dialogue. I avoided the usual fast-paced, back-and-forth, ping-pong dialogue because I want the focus to be on how the protagonist sees the sergeant, rather than on the dialogue itself. To do that, I use a "topic sentence" sort of approach to move the reader into the protagonist's perceptions; that is, I start a new paragraph with a sentence that lets the reader know how he is reacting internally. The next paragraph in the scene is an example of that technique.
I keep my eyes locked on the "Work Keeps U.S. Strong" poster on the wall behind him, waiting for him to wind down, making sure I don't look at him, because hung over as I am, I'd probably start laughing at his wide booze-pockmarked nose, his beady little pig eyes, his sweat-soaked-under-the-arms shirt, or his big sagging belly that he always tries to keep sucked in when he's in front of the men . Lately, every time I look at him, I start imagining him being poured into his uniform one lump at a time, a walking, talking sack of Arkansas potatoes.
I think of this technique as a sort of literary two-step: step one is to use the narrative role to show what is going on in the scene, followed immediately by step two, the protagonist's internal reaction to what just happened. Of course, every time I do that, it also further characterizes the protagonist.
Now it's time to finish up the scene.
He rants on, getting even redder in the face and throwing a little bit of his famous spit at my face every time he uses a word that starts with T: "Taint no doubt about it, boot like you gonna show up late wan Time Too many and I'm gonna hafta put ya on ree-port. Taint no doubt about it." (He calls every soldier who works in the warehouse a boot even if they aren't fresh out of boot camp. If you are newly arrived in-country, he thinks you don't know shit about anything, and I guess he's right about that, at least when it comes to me, but some of the other guys who work in the warehouse have been knocking around this man's army for a long time--how, or why, they ended up in Vietnam, I can't imagine.)
He finally winds down and demands I tell him why I'm late.
"Cause I was sick," I say. I stick out my tongue and roll my eyes up, trying to look sickly instead of just hung over. "I was real sick all last night, Sarge. I shouldn't even be here."
He looks real close at my eyes. "Ya doan look sick Ta me. Ya looks lak a hung over limp-dick pogue who can't hold his likker. That's wot ya look lak to me."
It's the first time I've heard the sarge use the word "pogue." It's a derogatory Marine term for soldiers like me who mange to get ourselves assigned to any kind of non-combat, far-from-danger support capacity. I'm not surprised he's using the term on me, but it makes me wonder if he shouldn't be a little more cautious about using the term within earshot of the older, more-experienced men because they might decide to remind him that he's one too.
I've heard Farkas use other Marine terms like that, even though he's not a Marine, so maybe he likes to think he is one, or wishes he could have been. He probably thinks he could have been a hot-shot Marine, if he'd wanted to. One of the older guys in the warehouse told me the sarge is a career non-com who's been in the Army practically his whoe life, and in supply since he started. The word is Farkas wanted to be in the Army so bad, he got his mother to lie so he could enlist when he was only sixteen, but I bet he's been stateside his whole career. He probably volunteered to come to Vietnam to prove to his drinking buddies back in Arkansas just how brave he was, but of course, being in supply, he knew he'd never have to see any action.
He jabs me in the chest with his fat finger to get my attention and says he can tell just by looking at my bloodshot eyes where I'd been, "out all night boozin' and whorin'."
I'm surprised he mentioned "whorin'" because the word around the warehouse is that fat old Sergeant Fart-Ass Farkas does a fair amount of "whorin'" himself. They say he's as likely as not to be seen most nights over in the off-limits whorehouses where you can buy a half-hour with a cute little underage Vietnamese girl--if you've got enough genuine US bucks in your pocket (they don't take our red MPC dollars over there). One guy told me he suspected it was costing Farkas a pretty penny to keep going after those young girls because after one time with him, the price goes up. The guy said old Fart-Ass goes through those little girls "lak a frad knife thra melted butta" (everybody in the warehouse has their fun imitating Farkas' Arkansas drawl).
The sergeant must have asked me another question while I was off in my head remembering, because all of a sudden it looks like he's even more pissed at me than usual. He gets ahold of the front of my shirt and demands I stand up straighter and pay attention to what he's saying. When I only straighten up a little bit, he gets his face in my face and starts growling at me. I'm not kidding, he's actually growling, deep in his throat, like a damned pit bull dog or something. I can tell he's ready to blow, so I know I'd better stand up straighter and pay closer attention to whatever crap he's saying.
Now that I'm at full attention and keeping a straight face, he seems to run out of steam. It's like he's used up all his usual threats and insults and doesn't quite know where to go next.
I see it as my chance to get away, so I quickly say, "Aw, com'on, sarge. I'm feelin' better now. Just let me go to work."
It looks like I've given him enough of an out to let me go, but he gives me one last jab in the chest with his stubby finger. "Ya bet yur ass yur gonna get Ta work, sick or not. And don't think ah won't be watching ya, private. An you can bet yore ass I ain't gonna borra ya'll no git upin go."
"No, sir," I say, "I'm feelin' a lot better now. Plenty of git upin go." I'm trying hard to keep a straight face because his "borra ya'll git upin go" has caused me to suddenly picture him back in the hill country of Arkansas (if there is any hill country in Arkansas), sitting on a rickety porch, dressed in worn-out and stained overhauls that smell of pig shit, barefoot, his big fat stomach sagging, a dirty toothpick hanging out of the corner of his mouth.
But then he brings me right back with "Well, you'd better git yore sorry ass in gear rat now, boy. Or I'm fixin' to write ya up. Ya hear me? If I give my say so, you'll be swattin' teetsy flies out thar in that scary ol' jungle by sundown. I ain't gonna tell ya agin. Ya hear?"
"Loud and clear, sergeant," I say. I give him a quick fake salute and hurry back into the warehouse to go to work, hoping he doesn't carry through with his threat to write me up. I know he has the authority to send me back to the work-placement officer any time he wants to, but I've noticed that before he's fired anyone in the past, he likes to send in at least one disciplinary write up. That way it can't be said he sent anybody to their death at the front without a good reason.
That's the end of the encounter with the sergeant, and the end, for now, of his characterization.
So, what do you think? Would you, as a reader, have a clear picture of this character? Would you remember him when he pops back up later in the novel? I hope so. To me, memorability (if there is such a word) is the truest test of characterization.
Characterization is not just showing what a character looks like. It's conveying to the reader all of the components that go into making a person who they are: appearance, speech, values, biases, and attitudes.
One last thing: as shown by this example, there's another less obvious tool in the fiction writer's toolbox--your protagonist's "take" on a supporting-cast character. Often overlooked, it may the most powerful characterizing tool a fiction writer has.
Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.
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