It’s time for our Tuesday Quick-Write, and I am super-excited to introduce you to guest author and scientist Loree Griffin Burns. Loree is a gifted author of nonfiction, and someone I’m also lucky enough to call a critique partner and friend. She writes award-winning Scientists in the Field titles like TRACKING TRASH and THE HIVE DETECTIVES and is also the author of the newly released CITIZEN SCIENTISTS: BE PART OF A SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD, which is one the best books I’ve ever seen for classrooms and families that value inquiry, exploration, and time spent in nature. Learn more at Loree’s website. And now here’s Loree with some thoughts on characterization.
I love that I get to follow Sarah Albee’s Nonfiction Friday with a Nonfiction Tuesday. And how could I start anywhere else but with a link to the Nonfiction Monday that fell in between? It’s the perfect way for me to be sure all you teacher-writers and librarian-writers know that on Mondays, nonfiction bloggers around the web celebrate children’s nonfiction with reviews and book-related links and activities. You can find the weekly roundup by visiting the official Nonfiction Monday website.
Now, on to the subject of my guest post: characterization.
Be honest: are you surprised that a writer like me—one who writes about ocean trash and honey bees and backyard science—would choose to write a feature on the topic of characterization? Do you think of character development as a strictly fictional device? For a long time, I did too. For most of my reading and writing life, in fact, I had it in my head that fiction writers were storytellers and nonfiction writers were, well, reporters. The former, in my misguided mind, had access to all the neat storytelling tools—characterization, setting, conflict, foreshadowing, pacing, etc—and the latter were meant to simply share the facts.
This misunderstanding was blown to bits when I read THE BEAK OF THE FINCH back in 1995. In this nonfiction title, Jonathan Weiner opened my eyes to an important truth: all writers must use every tool at their disposal to make their storytelling engaging. Weiner shared the true story of Peter and Rosemary Grant—evolutionary biologists who have recorded, over the course of more than twenty years of Galapagos fieldwork, the process of evolution in action—in a book that reads like a novel. (And remains, for the record, one of my all time favorites in the genre.)
Let readers know your character, ground those readers in a setting, entice them with a unique voice, thrill them with tension and strong pacing, include telling details, rich dialog, and don’t forget to share memorable images, literal ones of the sort Sarah talked about on Friday, or figurative ones you draw with your words. Structure your story so that all these elements work together, pulling your readers through the narrative page by page. These are tasks for all of us who share stories, whether the stories we tell are true or are born from our imaginations.
Here’s an example from my current work in progress …
I’m drafting a book about an entomologist. Clint McFarland is a passionate scientist and a true lover of insects … and yet his job (and this is the heart of my story) is to kill every last Asian longhorned beetle in North America. A man who kills beetles for a living will be hard enough for my young readers to take; when I tell them that the way one kills this particular beetle is by cutting down and chipping every single host tree in its range—no matter if those trees shade a schoolyard or sport backyard treehouses—well, I might lose them. Before I share this part of the story, then, it’s important that I let readers see Clint as the caring and passionate guy he is. This man adores insects. Passionately. Deeply. How do I show this side of Clint? By sharing his personality on the page. By paying close attention to how I introduce him. In short, with careful characterization.
To this end, I spent several hours last week reading through all the interviews I’ve conducted with Clint. (For the record, our five in-person interviews resulted in forty-one pages of transcribed notes.) I hunted for details that will help readers understand the type of guy Clint is. There was the surprising confession that he cuts his long hair every so often in order to donate a ponytail to Locks of Love. (I told you he was a nice guy!) And evidence of his passion for insects was everywhere: the set of ladybug life cycle toys on his office bookshelves (“biologically accurate egg, larva, pupa, and adult,” he told me), the worn copy of Thomas Eisner’s <i>For Love of Insects</i>. My favorite detail by far, though, was a scene I recorded when a member of Clint’s staff found an insect in the parking lot and brought it in to show Clint during our interview. “You’ll love this,” the staff member said, holding out a cup with a dead Dobsonfly inside. I’d never seen one before, but I can now tell you this: Dobsonflies are sort of hideous. This particular beast was over two inches long, but gained almost another full inch from the set of curved, scythe-like mandibles stretching out the top of its head. The mandibles looked like pincers, and as I was trying to figure out if they could pierce human skin, Clint turned the creature into his bare hand, marveled over its ‘amazing wings’, and ran a gentle finger over its ‘gorgeous mandibles.’
If I can craft a chapter that shares these details with readers, I won’t need to tell them Clint is a compassionate man with a heart for insects. They will have learned it for themselves.
The good thing about this prompt, I think, is that everyone can play along, fiction and nonfiction writers alike.
Choose a character from one of your works in progress—a real person (if you are working on a nonfiction piece) or a made up person (if you are working on a novel or a short story). Comb through all your files—physical or mental—on this person, and pull out the details that tell you the most about his/her character.
If this feels overwhelming, start small. Does s/he have an office? Go there and look around. Is it messy? Or crazy-neat? What’s the desktop look like? Is there a half glass of orange juice on board? A reusable thermal coffee mug? An army of old Dunkin’ Donuts cups? What is the dust situation? Is there anything hanging on the walls? Are there bookshelves? Are the books on them just what you’d expect to see, or does something there surprise you?
I think you get the idea. All writers can benefit from some quality time spent observing the little details—settings (as I’ve talked about here and in my post), but also habits, dialog, and actions—that tell us who our characters are.
Nonfiction writers will finish this exercise realizing, if they hadn’t already, that the best way to get these details is to meet your subject—or someone with a passion for your topic—in person. Push your nerves aside and set up that interview!