Teachers Write! 7/9 – Mini-Lesson Monday Part I

Good morning, writers! Hope everyone had a great weekend!

Von Sanders – Congratulations! You won our Friday drawing for a copy of REAL MERMAIDS DON’T HOLD THEIR BREATH by Helene Boudreau. Please email me your mailing address (kmessner at kate messner   dot  com) so she can send your book.

For those of you who want to dive right into writing today,  Jo’s Monday Morning Warm-Up for the day is here!

And we have not one but TWO terrific Mini-Lesson Monday posts this morning. This one features guest author Anne Marie Pace with wise words on Reading to Write, so be sure to check it out.

And the one you’re reading now features guest author Alex Lidell with a character workshop!  Alex is a YA fantasy writer and author of ABNA Finalist THE CADET OF TILDOR (Penguin, 2013). Learn more at her website: http://alexlidell.com.

Today we will work on describing a character to the reader without stopping the story to give a Miss America introduction.  John entered the room.  He was a rude, grouchy school principal in his late 60s who enjoyed telling everyone about how hard his job is.  Blah.  Let’s do better than that.   

 Let’s see how much we can learn about a character just by what he says about something else.  If we can pull this off, not only will our character be more vivid but our writing will be tighter, since each sentence will do double duty – developing character AND moving the plot forward.

 Take a look at the picture below and then read what five different characters had to say about the scene.  What can you tell about the speaker from his words?


Adam: “35 year old female found supine in cardiac arrest.  Penetrating trauma noted beneath left scapula.  Clothes are blood soaked, wound no longer bleeding.  Asystole was confirmed in two leads.  No resuscitation efforts were initiated.  Time of death 4:32 pm.  The body was left in custody of the local PD.”

Bob: “35 year old female found deceased on third floor apartment of 123 Main St.  Body is bloody, apparently from a single stab wound to the back.  Neighbor reported hearing an argument around 3:30pm, and found the victim “dead” when he went to check on her at 4pm.”

Charles: “35 years old.  Mary Bell was only 35 year sold.  Bless her heart, but I knew something like this was coming.  Kept telling her to just forget John, to move out of the city.  But she thought she knew better.  All the young kids think they know better.”

Derek: “The lady was lying there bleeding and no one was doing anything to help!  I told dad we should bandage her up and he just yelled at me to go home.  That isn’t right.”

Eddy: “She was happy, you know.  She always wanted to die.  Everyday, she kept saying that – over and over and over.  Begging me for it.  Begging everybody for it.  And now she has what she wanted all along.  I even let her wear her favorite dress.  I wanted her to be happy.”

Note that Adam, Bob, Charles, Derek, and Eddy are all talking about the dead woman – not about themselves.  Yet, the WAY they talk about her tells us a lot about them.  Let’s look at how this happens:

Adam and Bob seem to be professionals.  There is no emotion in their voice, and they sound like they are giving a report to someone.  The sentences are chopped and sometimes grammatically incorrect – but not ignorant.  No hesitation, no repeated words, just the facts. 

Although Adam and Bob are both professionals, we can tell that their profession is not the same. Adam is using medical words.  He says “cardiac arrest” and “penetrating trauma” where Bob says “deceased” and “stab wound”.  They are also both covering their basis, but in different ways – it’s important for Adam to justify that the woman is in fact dead (asystole was confirmed in two leads), where as Bob is more concerned about what may have happened before the woman died (neighbor reported hearing an argument).  Most likely, Adam is a paramedic and Bob is a police officer. Do you agree?

Charles is a bit more personal.  He’s calling the woman by name.  Still, he does not seem overly distressed.  Charles is more focused on telling us that he had been right all long, then on grieving.  Why?  Maybe because he is self centered human being who could care less about others.  Maybe he just didn’t know her that well.  What if we add just two words to his statement: “My daughter, Mary Bell…”  Wouldn’t this reaction tell you a lot about him and his relationship with his daughter?  Also, from the way he refers to a 35-year-old woman as a kid, so we can guess that Charles is older.

Derek’s indignation that no one is helping shows us his naiveté about death.  He is likely a child. 

What about Eddy?  Now he’s different all together.  Unlike everyone else who was talking about the scene, Eddy is more concerned evaluating the morality of the murder.  She wanted it.  She wanted to be dead.  Note that he LET her wear a certain dress. Eddy thinks it’s his right and power to decide what other people should wear.  He is emotional, but not empathetic. He repeats words (over and over and over).  Probably someone mentally unstable, right? 

Look how much we learned about each character by listening to them describe something!  Now let’s see you try it.

Describe the picture from your character’s point of view, and the rest of us will try and figure what your character is like.  Let’s see how close we get it.  You may use a character from your work in progress on invent a new one.  I recommend doing the exercise twice, from two different character’s POV, to better understand how this works.  If you have any questions, or if I missed commenting on your homework, please email me at Alex@alexlidell.com

38 Replies on “Teachers Write! 7/9 – Mini-Lesson Monday Part I

  1. Sally:
    I couldn’t stop staring at the mess of cigarettes scattered on her floor, and part of me wanted to remind her of our conversations over tea that morning. “Those things will kill you!” I told her for the umpteenth time, but she just laughed me off. She was always like that, you know? She thought she was invincible. I guess, in the end, she was right, though. It wasn’t the cigarettes, was it? That cup of tea is the last one we’ll have together in this ‘ol run-down apartment building. She’s the last of them, too. The last of the artists who moved here in the 80’s for cheap rents. I remember them all. Now, it’s all just drug dealers and gang bangers … and me.

    1. Sally is the last original tenant in her building. She lives in a rent-stabilized apartment and tends to judge her younger neighbors as she noses into their business.

      I like how this dialogue show me both character and setting (the latter likely dependent on my own second-hand background knowledge).

    2. Kevin, great job! Although Sally is talking about the victim, we see a lot about Sally herself. I agree with Brian in that she seems a bit opinionated – it’s about what she told sally (re cigarettes), the larger picture of who lives in the building over the years. Also, we get GREAT info about Sally’s socio economic status: she has lived in a building with cheap rents for many many years, she does not like the tenants who are there now, but seems unlikely to move out. excellent work!

    3. I’d say Sally is an artist, but someone that isn’t overly ambitious, doesn’t like change. Everything is changing around her, and she stays put, reminiscing about how it used to be.

      Wonderful, Kevin!

  2. “If only she’d never met Stan! When we were growing up she had so many hopes and dreams but she gave all those up for him. She was a good person I tell you! She didn’t deserve this. I knew something like this would happen, I knew it. I tried to tell her but she just wouldn’t listen!”

    1. This sounds like a childhood friend who has remained in the victim’s life for a long time. She’s distraught over what’s happened so senselessly. Since she can’t attach a reason to it, she focuses on cause, laying blame on Stan and herself. She sees life like dominoes: once set in motion, each one irresistibly knocks down the next.

  3. Sid: “The face in the picture looks like she’s considering a peaceful dream, but the rest of the scene is all wrong. The body tilted awkwardly against the wall, legs akimbo; left hand thrown over left ankle, right hand crabbed on the carpet. And the blood: three rusty smears, one marking her slump down the wall and two others crusting the same green carpet… How did this happen?”

    Ben: “At first, I thought the lady was passed out, but then I saw the blood and I knew she was dead. Somebody killed her ’cause I don’t think she’d kill herself that way. I saw this movie once that had crime-scene pictures, and this reminds me a little of that. It’s kind of a gross picture. Why you making me do this anyway?”

    1. I like this a lot, Brian. Very different feel of the two characters even neither knows the victim. Ben seems younger – the lady was passed out, he says, which makes I’m sound younger. The last sentence has a rebellious teenager quality to it. Sid, on the other hand seems older and more distant. Very little emotion in this voice, which is more of an artistic quality. He is someone who pays attention to detail – three rusty smears. An artist perpahs?

      How did you like writing two different character descriptions of the scene?

      1. These are two characters from a WIP, so this prompt definitely helped me inhabit them more. Thanks for the writing inspiration, Alex.

        I look forward to adapting this idea to use with middle-school students. Visual prompts tend to go over well, and I imagine asking them to respond to some memorable image in multiple ways, either taking perspectives from something they’re writing or looking through the eyes of two characters in something we’re reading together.

    2. Ben is someone being interrogated, a neighbor, or first person on the scene, someone hanging out on the streets. Not too intelligent, reactive. Probably used to seeing crime, so immune to this situation. Not emotionally involved at all, to the point of saying it reminds him of a movie.

  4. “Wow, can you believe it, Carter? That woman from down the street is DEAD! This is SO cool! There are ambulances and police everywhere, and people are freaking out. She was always really hot, I thought, didn’t you? She had that rotten boyfriend. I bet he did it. Too bad she didn’t go for younger guys. Oh, we’ll, let’s go. I’ve got a new video game to show you.”

    “Wait, Ryan. I wanna see them cart her off. Maybe….she’ll gush blood or something.” I can’t let Ryan know what I’m feeling right now, because he would laugh. But, this is really sad. I can’t believe someone would do something like this to anyone. She was a nice lady, but she did have a mean boyfriend, I wonder where he is right now….I wonder if he did it.

  5. I like what you are doing, showing the differences through conversation. Ryan’s statement caught me by surprise in a great way – SO cool. Teenager wanna be bad ass type, no empathy as opposed to the more self contious Carter. I wonderif you MIT get even more mileage out of this is you didn’t tell us how carter felt but shown us. What can he do on the heels of his statement to Ryan to show us that it is NOT reflective of his true feelings? Swallow nausea? Notice that Ryan is watching his face and make sure to school it? Forse a smile? Put in eye drops he does not need because to mask teary eyes?
    Great work!

  6. I’ve almost blocked the scene from my mind. I’m actually pretty good at it now. At the beginning, it wasn’t so easy. Actually, it was almost impossible. I had to go to Dr. Grace and she put me on this medicine. I’m not taking it anymore, but it really did the trick. I wish my Mom would take it because she just can’t get her life together. She says it’s because of Dad leaving and that it’s hard to find work these days, but I don’t think that’s it. If nothing ever happened to Mary Bell, we both would have been a-ok. As good as I am at forgetting and blocking that awful day, I know it’s sitting around in my brain somewhere, ready to pop up when it feels like it. I hope it doesn’t haunt us for the rest of our lives.

    1. Diane, this is great prompt writing. Your character is really having a hard time emotionally – as is her whole family – as a result of having seen Mary Bell’s body. You gave us a good big picture look at her. For the sake of exercise, would you like to write what the character would have said upon first seeing Mary Bell? Would she cry? Scream? Tell her voices to stop bothering her? Squeeze her mother’s hand? Worry about how to keep mom from seeing this? Just food for thought!

      1. Ok, tried it again! Thanks, Alex.

        It had gotten close before, John being so out of control and all. But when I saw her in the hallway, there was no doubt in my mind what had happened and who had done it. You’d think being 11 years old, that I’d be beyond freaked out. And I was, but I’d imagined something like this in my head so many times, that when I finally saw it for real, it looked familiar. I know that sounds cold and unfeeling, and I have major guilt about that. I’ve gone over the guilt thing a million times with Dr. Grace. It was an awful thing, I’m not denying that, but all I could think about was that finally, FINALLY, John would be out of our lives for good.

        1. Great last sentence – i especially love that here. it tell us so much in so fer words – that John was in the speaker’s life, that he was a bad presence there, so bad that in face of a murder the speaker can’t help but feel first releaved about her own safety – while feeling guilty about that feeling. What i also find interesting about this passage is that although the speaker is speaking about something she witnessed at age 11, she seems to be speaking to us as an adult looking back on a memory of being 11. She’s had time to be introspective, to speak with Dr. Grace, to use very mature words and phrasing. Nice work.

  7. Shyrl,

    I agree with Alex above–Ryan is definitely cultivating a cool gangster image for himself, to the point he has internalized it.

    I have to sayI loved Carter’s interior dialogue: “She was a nice lady, but she had a mean boyfriend.” It sounds authentic to me; good work!

  8. Stevie: “Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness. Is she dead? Who would do something like this? Oh my goodness, Oh my goodness, oh my goodness. My friends are never going to believe that I saw a dead body. This is just like that old movie Stand By Me! I think I’m gonna throw up. Grandma, what are you doing? Don’t touch the dead lady!” Barf, barf, barf.

    Grandma Birdie: “I think she still has a pulse. Yes, she does. She’s still alive. Stevie, call 911! Are you okay? Let it all out. Give me your phone, I’ll call. Sit down over here away from the body and take it easy. I’m at the apartment complex on East Main Street. Second floor. My grandson and I stumbled on a lady in a hallway in front of apartment 207 that has been stabbed in the back, and she’s still alive. Yeah, I checked her pulse. She’s still alive. Probably in her mid 30’s. I’ll wait here until they arrive.”

    Alex, thanks for today’s mini-lesson!

    1. Great job here, Andy! I like the repetative wording of Stevie, which shows how overwhelemed and unsure her is, as compared to the matter of fact words and actions of grandma. She clearly is a very calm, responsible and decisive person. Probably has a biot of trainig too. Great!

  9. What an interesting mini-lesson. Some of my fourth grade students are ready to move beyond the big introduction to the character – this gives me some ideas to try with them (using a different picture).

    Here’s my attempt:
    “Um, this looks bad,” said HIlary gagging and fingering her lucky coin in her jeans pocket. “How did this happen? We need to get out of here and tell someone about this lady. She definitely needs help. What are those things on the floor all around her? Why are they there?”

    1. Nice work – i like the lucky coin, the “um”, the “tell someone about the lady” as it tells us the speaker is inexperienced and young. Great job getting that across without ever having to come out and tell us the speaker is a kid.

      let me know how it works with your class. i would love to hear!!

  10. Cleo: “Peeking in the window it looked to me like she was sleeping. Who sleeps against the wall with their legs all wonky this that? I tiptoed around the corner of the house and slowly opened the screen door. The creaking hinges made me jump and I almost screamed. Something didn’t seem right. When I finally felt brave enough to poke my head into the house I saw the red smears on the wall and floor. I ran down the trail as fast as I could.”

    Cal: “I’d seen her in town a few days ago with the fellow from out east. He’d only been in town a few weeks but everyone seemed to know about him. That fancy yacht and those pressed clothes and all that money sure got Wendy’s attention. She was always quick to get distracted. That’s why it hadn’t bothered me when I got no answer on the phone. After a couple of days though I got to thinking about this guy and knew in my gut something was amiss. As soon as I parked the pickup in front of her cabin I could tell we had a problem. The screen door was wide open and I walked in. The first thing I noticed were the flowers on her dress. Wendy had a fondness for dresses. I lifted the phone received and dialed the police station and my gaze stayed on those flower pedals.”

    1. Very nice job with different characters here. Cleo has a much simpler, narrower view – sleeping but not quite right because of wonky legs – than Cal who comments on the presumed killer’s money and yacht and Wendy’s financial attraction. Cal is commenting on more adult like factors. Also, we have the door in both cases, but for Cleo its a big deal: the door creaks and scares, where as for Cal its just an obsticle to be opened. Once again shows Cal’s micro – child like view. I like. How did you feel writing these two discriptions?

  11. I am so amazed here how everyone’s character is so different and all told in a short reaction to a scene. Great idea to use with my students.

    Beatrice: I thought she was coming home tonight. Daddy said she was coming home. She’s even wearing her favorite dress, the one she bought for a special occasion. How can someone be so mean? I am so scared. Daddy will hold me and tell me everything is going to be okay, but I don’t know. The cops are coming. I can hear the woo woo of the lights. Come quick. I hope they make her better.

    Daddy: Oh baby, what am I going to do? Our baby shouldn’t have to see this shit. She’s too young to understand. Hell, I don’t even understand. Where did you go all dressed up tonight? Who coulda done such a terrible thing? Oh, baby.

    1. Even though you cheated a bit by telling us that the second speaker is Daddy ( hehe) i am sure we would all have seen it right off from how he spoke. I LOVE the way you are showing us daddy’s social status – he is emotional and caring about the child, but he is also swearing as part of his normal speech. We are probably not dealing with British Aristocracy here 🙂 Beatrice’s “daddy” and “woo woo of the lights” wording age her very well to a young child. Great work!

      I’d love to know how this will work in the classroom for you. Please shoot me a line! what age do you teach?

  12. Character 1: The woman sprawled against the wall, blood oozing from the bite on her shoulder. Her legs kicked out at odd angles, but it was her eyes that held me. They had once danced with green and gold light. Now that light had leaked out like the blood smeared against the wall. Her flat, empty gaze held me captive. I couldn’t look away.

    Character 2: Jagged tears surrounded the bite wound on the back of her shoulder. Even if so much blood had not been lost, I’m not sure I could have sewn up the damage from such a fearsome beast. It was too late, anyway. The tilt of her head told me she was not of this world any longer even before I reached to find the pulse of a no longer beating heart.

    1. Great job, Kay! Love how Ch 1 calls her “the woman” yet we find out later that he did in fact know her. A distant kind of character – as opposed to Character 2 who is a lot more emotionally attached and involved. Instead of a distant almost clinical fascination here we have tears, a heart no longer beating and just the rhythm if the words that communicated care. Love it!

  13. Blake:
    Aw, man! This is gonna make me so late. My mom’s never gonna believe this. Maybe I can have one of those cops I called talk to her on my cell phone and explain why I’m gonna be late for curfew tonight.
    Poor lady. Here she is, lying dead on the floor and I’m worrying about getting grounded this weekend. I wonder if she has any kids.
    It’s getting hot in here. How much longer is this gonna take?

    1. Thank you for this, Lisa. sound like a teenager here! World revolves around him and he kinda realizes it, but it is still not effecting his priorities. Made me smile

  14. Ok, so Yay! I am finally getting to write tonight! Woohoo! 🙂
    2 characters from a sketchy WIP…
    When I got home from school, there were all these people around-swarming the entrance to the building. I saw the ambulance parked on the sidewalk and I decided to take the stairs up. When I got to “4”, I opened the door and noticed all of this activity and the dreaded “police line”. I saw medics, detectives, gawkers-and then, I saw her! Mom’s friend MaryBelle? Oh, Jesus, she’s dead! I bet she got in a fight with that freaky boyfriend of hers again. He is such a jerk!
    Suddenly, I saw mom come out of our apartment. She ran to me and grabbed me so hard to hug me that I almost fell down. “Oh, Kylee! I can’t believe MaryBelle’s gone!” Mom sobbed and I had no tissue to offer…

    Ok, so I followed Kylee home today-turnabout is fair play right? I snuck up the back stairs like she did (because I was a little nervous about seeing the Pigs’ cars ya know)only I was really quiet. I was kinda worried about how all the stuff outside related to all the stuff inside…jus sayin things are like that sometimes. When I opened the door to her floor, the stink in the hall was sick! It smelled like a mix of barf, ciggie smoke and sweat…another day in paradise? Yeah, then I saw Kylee’s mom hug her, like major! They were just talking and stuff. I wished my mom cared about me like that…just a mom who cares is all I want-a mom who cares.

    1. Thank you for sharing your WIP characters, Amy! This is great! Dusty’s voice is so different from Kylee – Pigs’ cars, barf, ciggie smoke. The fact that Dusty is more effected by the hug than by the dead body is an AWESOME example of communicating character through reaction. Wohoo!

  15. Man, this elevator is slow. If this pizza gets cold, I won’t get a tip. I hardly ever get tips from this wacked-out complex anyway.
    Geez! It’s been 5 minutes of me standing here. I got three more deliveries at least, then I still have to write that paper for history class. Where are the stairs?
    There is the exit sign. I’m goin for it.
    Apartment 307 – on the third floor.That shouldn’t be too hard. The kid who ordered the pizza better be there and she better have enough money for a tip.
    Man, these old doors are heavy. Oh brother, a drunk passed out in the hall. Reminds me of my step sister’s mom – always overdoing it. She better not be the one that ordered his pizza. Naw, it was definitely a kid.
    Let’s see, 303, 305…
    Holy cow! There’s blood on the wall behind this chick. Oh my God, she’s been shot! Whoa, whoa, whoa… The elevator door just closed. What should I do? How could nobody here have heard a gun being shot? Maybe she got stabbed, Is she alive?
    “Hey! Hey! Somebody help! This lady’s been hurt! Hey! Hey! anybody? Help! Help!”

    1. Thank you for this, Mary! I believe you are the first writer today whose character shouted for help. Hehe. Great. This pizza boy is on top of things – in a way. He calls for help, but he is paniced, not doing anything himself, not calling the police. It’s SOMEBODY help, not “hello, police?”. Great character sketch with that last line alone.

  16. Natalie: “Oh God! No, no, no, no, no. What is going on? Why is this happening? What do we do? God, not on my first night here. I just moved in. I don’t know any numbers. I don’t even have a phone! How do you call the French police? I knew it, I knew this was a bad idea. I should not have moved here. I was too impulsive, just like my mother said. Now there’s a dead person in front of my apartment door! And she’s bleeding! Oh God, there’s blood all over. I think I’m going to be sick. How will I explain this? How do you say, ‘I’m innocent’ in French? Oh God, please help!”

    Sarah: “Oh, that’s not good. Man, what the heck happened? Okay, calm down. Don’t freak out. It’s going to be fine. We just have to get help. Let’s knock on these apartment doors and tell someone to call for help. Tell them this woman is bleeding from her back and looks like she’s unconscious. What’s the French word for unconscious? Her skin still feels warm. We have to be quick about this. Start knocking!

  17. How do you say, “I’m innocent” in French? – I love that line. We know right from this alone that Natalie is in france (or a french speaking country), that she does not speak the language, and that for some reason she is worried that if the police come, they will accuse her. Why? some previous experience? Hmm.. foor for thought. I like that a lot! And Sarah is such a great contrast – while she also had the smae concerns of language and calling the french police, hers center around being understood and accurate, not about being accused of murder. I loved that you put both characters into a similar situation and that really highlighted the differences between them. Great great work. Reading this made me very happy for how the lesson went!

  18. Ok, it is not 10:17 pm PST and I believe I am caught up and have replied to everyone. If I missed you, please email me at alex@alexlidell.com and i will correct the situation 🙂 And, of course, if you just want to email and talk more about the lesson, please do. A few of you emailed me already and I love hearing from you.