The second writing exercise for my class at BYU. (These exercises are from Dr. Tourney’s English 318R class, with edits by me that make it more clear.)
This exercise focuses on character presentation and development. “Character” is central to story-telling. It is the chief point of reader interest, and failure to present characters who are credible, engaging, and dynamic is not compensated for by any other success in the story.
Good characterization is achieved through careful selection of physical details and personal attributes, the author’s social awareness, and consistency with psychological realism. It also requires recognition that character is dynamic. Characters change with the circumstances of the plot and interaction with other characters. Like the real people they represent they are unique, complex, and potentially unfathomable, not merely stereotypical functions in the plot. What is essential is not that the character should be entirely understood, but be believed and indispensable.
Like the first exercise, the second consists of four parts. It focuses on the presentation of a single character.
This assignment was a challenge. The hardest part was that I chose a challenging character who is difficult to work with. How do you work with someone who never communicates the truth unless they’re drunk or you’re in their head? I found it very befuddling. The objective view is easy enough, since you can outright state that he’s a liar and how he copes. First person is easier than third person, since in first person you can be allowed to sit in the character’s head and see the inner workings. You can watch him struggle to know what he wants to say and how he figures out what to say to perhaps get it across to others. Third person view restricted to a second character is the hardest, since now you’re limited to the other character’s mind and actions. It was a big struggle for me to figure out how he would lie while still knowing what it was he really wanted to say. That was what made the assignment the hardest, and also figuring out what scenes and situations to write to best communicate the character to the reader.
Situations are very important for characterization. You can have a fascinating character, but if all you have them do is sit at home no one will know. For example, in “Cathedral” Carver strategically placed the narrator in a situation where his prejudice and closed-mindedness could come out. If Robert, the blind man, had never come to visit the reader would never know that the narrator was uncomfortable or thought that blind people were pathetic. We also wouldn’t have known that the narrator was willing and capable of change. Many different aspects of his character would have never surfaced without Robert being there. The situation is critical.
In “Where are you going, where have you been?” Connie is shown in several different situations which help the reader to discover her character. First she’s shown hanging with her friends and with her family, so the reader thinks she’s one of those annoying selfish pretty girls with a shallow personality. Oates shows her being arrogant by her interactions with her mother and sister, confident with her interactions with her friends and boys away from home, and selfish with her refusal to go to the family barbecue. The reader only learns that Connie has depth and actually loves her family when Arnold Friend shows up and successfully abducts her by threatening her family. If Arnold Friend never showed up to create that situation, the reader would have never known how uncertain Connie could be, and that she was willing to sacrifice herself for her family.
For me to properly communicate the character of Eric I had to find a situation where he could finally find out what it was like to tell the truth. That way the reader could see how ecstatic he would be and know that he doesn’t lie just to lie, he honestly can’t do anything else and would much rather be normal. By placing Eric and Sarah in the party environment we get to watch Eric struggle to communicate before he drinks any alcohol. We see him try to be social, fail, and retreat. We see him try to cope with his disorder and state the opposite of what he means or be “unsure” and have Sarah interpret it for us. Then after he takes a drink we get to see him celebrate and rejoice in finally being able to say that the sky is blue. It is very liberating for him to finally have the truth come out of his mouth. If I hadn’t focused on that scene, that moment in his life, the reader might not be able to fully understand in such a short narrative the same amount of depth in Eric’s character. It also allows the reader to see that while Sarah wants to think she’s a cool, caring big sister, she can actually be quite shallow.
So after a lot of consideration I feel that situation is one of the most important aspects of portraying character. The situation allows the details of personality come out for our inspection and enjoyment. Without the proper situation, readers might not ever know a certain character is actually very interesting. Bad situations lead to boring characters, no matter how cool they are.
Eric Kohei Jones, age fourteen, third generation Japanese-American on his mother’s side. He stood about five foot nine inches. His face was covered in acne, a breakout that had cursed him for the past six months. He had the habit of scooting his thick glasses up his nose as far as they could go, so his eyebrows always touched the top of the frames. He had shifty eyes, not that they seemed crafty, but they were always shifting in order to take in the world around him. No one knew what he was really thinking, and most people never cared to try and find out. They had tried in the past, but when it became clear that he never told the truth they all decided to quit. It was a miracle he was even passing school, except for the fact that no teacher wanted to deal with him for more than a year. He really needed an IEP, but his parents refused to give him any special attention. They thought he lied to get attention, and they had no desire to encourage such behavior. They did not bother trying to get him diagnosed, they just scolded him. If they had taken him to a psychologist they might have found out that something inside his brain was broken. Eric had a disorder.
Eric had Pseudologia fantastica, also known as mythomania or pathological lying. Somewhere in his mind there was a big black hole that all the truth fell down. The truth could never make it out of his mouth. No matter how hard he tried he could never say the truth straight out. He couldn’t even answer a test question without lying. He learned ways of coping. He found that he could skirt around the truth by pretending to be unsure. When taking eye exams he always answered with a question, which ensured he actually got close to the right prescription. It took him a few tries to figure that out, and for years he’d spent a lot of time walking into things because he couldn’t see. However, feigning uncertainty didn’t help when the test questions were always multiple choice.
Eric really wanted to tell the truth. His told elaborate tales that acted as complex puzzles one could find the truth in if they looked hard enough. Sadly for him, though, no one bothered trying to find truth in the words of a liar. He learned when to keep his mouth shut, because sometimes saying nothing was the best way for the truth to be told. Then one day at a party he discovered alcohol.
Alcohol did something to him that he didn’t suspect. It filled the gaping hole to overflowing and the truth could slide right over and out. That discovery thrilled him, and he took to drinking. It made him feel free. He drank whenever he could manage. He drank before school, and he snuck alcohol in his lunch. His teachers wondered how his grades could suddenly improve so drastically. He got pulled in to the principle’s office for cheating, and while in his inebriated state he could honestly say he hadn’t been cheating, no one believed him since they’d never been able to before. Then he got in trouble for being drunk at school, as well as for being underage.
So now he mostly doesn’t talk at all, even though he has a lot to say.
Huh. I wonder why Sarah has such a bunch in her panties over this. Shouldn’t she be just as thrilled as I am? I mean, I finally got to tell her the truth. I’ve been wanting to tell her the truth for my entire life! I want to tell everyone the truth, but I guess if I’m supposed to keep the alcohol a secret I might not be able to do that. Does she realize how suffocating it is to not be able to tell the truth? I mean, what if I witnessed a murder, or a robbery, or something? If I was the sole witness the person would likely get away with it because I wouldn’t be able to communicate the truth to the officers! How could I live like that, knowing full well someone got away with murder because I couldn’t tell the truth? That’s a big heavy worry.
There’s been so many times I’ve wanted to give her good advice, or comfort her, or tell her something, but all I could do was just give her a hug and keep my mouth shut. Better to stay silent than say something stupid. It takes a lot of effort to hide the truth in my lies. If I can’t work it in good enough the monster eats it. I hate that monster. He ruins everything for me. I don’t know why I bother sometimes, the monster gets smarter and smarter and it gets harder and harder to sneak the truth out and nobody seems to get it or care. Except for Sarah. She gets it, she cares. She makes the challenge of sneaking the truth out worth it, even fun. It’s a good thing I like challenges and mind games, otherwise I might not be able to try, not even for Sarah. Although, I do enjoy the challenge just for the challenge. It’s become as much a part of me as the lying. It keeps me on my toes, keeps my mind sharp. It gives me something to do while everyone else around ignores me. I don’t like to be bored. It keeps me entertained. What way can I sneak the truth past the monster this time? Sometime’s it’s in questions. Keeping the monster believing that I’m not really sure what I’m talking about is the hardest way, although it’s the way most people can get. Someday, though, I know that won’t work any more. I have to feed in pieces of the truth over multiple mostly-lies in order to be sure it all gets out. People don’t usually listen to those. Someday I won’t be able to get the truth out to anyone at all, maybe not even Sarah, maybe she’ll stop trying to dig and find the truth hiding in my word games.
Maybe she doesn’t want to know the truth? I don’t know why she wouldn’t. She worked hard to figure out how to understand what I really meant. Sure, she doesn’t get it right all the time. Actually, she doesn’t get it right often, but she still knows and understands me better than anyone else. At least she tries, for now. I love her.
I wonder what it would be like on her end of this. I thought she’d want to ask a lot of questions, to find out everything she could in order to understand me better. I know I would be brimming with questions. I’m fascinated by people. I love to pull apart how their brains work, and having a moment where a liar like me could finally tell the truth would be a wellspring of information I couldn’t pass up! Well, maybe it would be too disconcerting? I guess if Sarah were to suddenly start lying a lot it would really get me mixed up. I still think it would fascinate me, but I guess if she really started lying in earnest I might get concerned.
But just think of all the opportunities that just opened up for me! I could actually start doing well in school! I could finally live my dreams! It’s like I just won a million dollars. Oh the things I could do! I should go do my homework while I’m still drunk. I think I could get an A! I wonder how soon it will wear off. Maybe I should go liberate a bottle of beer from the fridge, I’m sure Dad wouldn’t notice. He’d think Mom took it. I’ll need to be careful about this. How little does it take to satisfy the monster? I need to experiment.
Sarah was the life of the party. She let her long black hair drift over her shoulders as she laughed sweetly at all the comments the boys made. She retained much of her mother’s beautiful asian mystery, which she used to her advantage. While she flirted she swayed with the music. The bass thudded through her body, a jarring feeling she didn’t completely enjoy, but everyone was here in the range of the vibrations. She would stay where everyone else was, which was away from her stuffy, strict parents. It wasn’t that she didn’t love her parents or didn’t respect them, she did. It was just, well, limiting sometimes to always be at home.
Sarah accepted a drink and a compliment from one of her classmates, laughing at his attempt to drag her away to the backyard. She might have contemplated following him around any other night, but tonight was different. She’d brought someone along this time.
A loud smack and shout from across the room helped her to find him. She’d lost him for a few minutes in the large crowd of people. Her baby brother stood there rubbing his acne-covered cheek and grimacing at the retreating back of an outraged girl. Sarah shook her head and sighed, a small smile dancing over her lips. He’d made it longer than she had expected without getting slapped, but it was bound to happen eventually. She probably should’t have brought him along, but she knew how badly he hated being left behind. He would always say he’d had a great time without her, but she knew that was his way of telling her he’d been miserable. They had worked out a system so that she could always know what he meant, even though he could never say it.
She meandered over to where he was, now leaning against the wall trying to be invisible.
“Smooth Eric, real smooth.” She grinned at him.
“Of course, I’m the slickest man here.” She knew he meant he was the lamest.
“What did you say that made her so mad?”
“Oh, probably something that had to do with her hair? Don’t you think it looks like she’s just wearing a wet cat?” She knew he had said the girl’s hair looked like a wet dog, even though he meant to compliment how shining and full it was tonight.
“Things aren’t exactly going according to plan, are they?” Sarah laughed.
Eric shrugged and acted as non-committal as possible. She knew he agreed completely with her.
“Well, come on. Try to have some fun before this party gets busted, okay? Here, try a drink.” She handed him the beer her classmate had given to her just moments earlier.
“Really?” he asked.
“Yeah, try it. I’ve already hit my limit. I can’t drink any more without the ‘rents figuring it out when we get home.”
“Brilliant, I’ll just down this and solve all my problems.” She knew he didn’t believe drinking would help him have a better time. She didn’t really figure it would either, but it might help him forget about being so miserable by the time he woke up in the morning.
Eric took a gulp and gagged. He looked at her and tried again, this time managing to down half the bottle.
“Tastes great, like lemonade and ice cream on a hot sunny day.” Eric stuck out his tongue and made a face. Sarah laughed.
“Yeah, I don’t really like it either, but it helps me loosen up. Otherwise, I don’t know if I’d be able to handle such a big crowd of people.”
“Yeah, this little group is really tame.” Eric watched as someone jumped off the table and started crowd surfing. “I can’t believe people really prefer this to actual fun.” He paused a moment before his hand flew to his mouth.
“Wait, what?” Sarah was confused. Eric hated big parties and the stupid things people did. He preferred constructive activities and mind games. What he just said did not follow up with what she’d managed to translate in the past.
“I said I can’t believe people really prefer this to actual fun!” Eric grinned from ear to ear. He grabbed her by the shoulders. “Ask me a question!”
“What’s going on? You’re confusing me!”
“I just drank half a beer, ask me a question!” It was true, he had just drunk half a beer.
“Um, what color is the sky?”
“Blue! Another one!”
“What do you do in the morning before I get up?”
“Sudoku! Another!” Also true, she was always finding his finished puzzles in the trash.
“What’s my shoe size?”
“Seven!” Again, also true. Eric laughed and threw his hands in the air.
“Wait, how can you be telling the truth?” Sarah was still very confused. Eric never told the truth, not even to her.
“It must have something to do with the alcohol and how they lower your inhibitions. It does absorb into your blood pretty quickly. This is fantastic! Sarah, you’re beautiful! You have no idea how long I’ve been wanting to tell you that! Oh my goodness, oh ho ho!” Eric spun around and kept laughing. People started to stare. Sarah really didn’t want their attention just now.
“Eric! Calm down, you’re weirding me out!” she grabbed his hand and took the beer from him.
“Why? This is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me!”
“Let’s go home now, okay? We can talk as we walk.”
“Um, okay?” Eric obediently followed her out the door.
They took the long way home. Sarah let him talk. Her mind was racing as she learned things about him that she had no idea she could ever really know. His favorite color was acid green, something about it really did something for him. She had thought it was lilac. His favorite subject in school was English, because you could totally BS a paper and he could still get a decent grade doing that since he could convince himself that BSing was in no way telling the truth. Although, he would really prefer to be good at math because he liked how neat and manageable numbers were. She’d thought his favorite subject was history. He’d really like to be a lawyer someday, or maybe a doctor, but he knew those goals were out of his reach. She thought he’d just wanted to play video games the rest of his life. He really liked it when she wore her hair down, it made him proud to have such a pretty sister. The truth just kept coming and coming. Sarah didn’t know how to handle it, he seemed like an entirely different person now. By the time they arrived home she decided taking him to the party had definitely been a bad idea. She stopped him in the hall before taking out her apartment key.
“Hey Eric, can we keep our discovery our little secret?”
“I… well, umm… I feel like we had something special going on just the two of us before. Now suddenly it’s all upside-down and I don’t know what to think.” She couldn’t think of anything better to say.
“Oh. Well, yeah. Sure. I guess it is a bit weird to hear me tell the truth.”
“A little, yeah.” Sarah smiled a weak smile.
Eric nodded. “You also probably don’t want the ‘rents to find out you’ve been to parties with underage drinking going on.”
“Yeah, that too.” Sarah said, but it had only really just dawned on her after he said it.
“Don’t worry, you’re secret is safe with me.” He winked at her. “It always has been, hasn’t it?”
“Yes, yes it has.” Sarah sighed with relief as she pulled out her keys.
She was halfway finished unlocking the door when it flew open, their father standing in the way.
“Do either of you care to explain to me why you were out so late?” he growled.
“We were out drinking at a party.” Eric said, not missing a beat. For a moment Sarah froze. Hadn’t he just promised to keep her secret safe?
Their father rolled his eyes, “Sarah, I hope you can tell me what you were actually doing?”
“Um,” That’s right, she thawed as she realized there was no way their father would believe Eric, “we got hung up at the store. I couldn’t decide what color of lipstick to get, then we took the long way home. Eric needs the exercise.”
“That he does. Now go say goodnight to your mother.” Their father stepped out of the way.
Eric winked at her as he stepped inside. Sarah took a steadying breath and smiled. It didn’t matter whether he was lying to her face or telling the truth. She knew he would always be there to back her up and help her in whatever way he could.