Excerpt of a Characters Workshop

Creating Heartbeats, Character Workshop

Show don’t Tell

There are plenty of quotes by plenty of writers advocating that the reader be brought into the story rather than sit passively on the side lines. What the characters do, say, act and think automatically achieve this.

Let’s return to the situations we introduced our characters to. Their reactions, what they did, said, acted and thought, was SHOWING us rather than reporting it all in a different time frame to when it actually happened: (TELLING)

Those situations were brought into the present despite using the past tense for all but what was said in speech marks. How do we know? We were there when it kicked off. Or at least we felt like we were. Showing is a way of letting us see what is happening rather than being told what is happening. And, yes. There are times when TELLING is more appropriate.

The Adverbs Charades Game

This is where we throw some adverbs into the middle, folded or face down so no-one can see them, and take turns to pick one out, and the others must guess the adverb.

For example, imagine picking up the adverb, ‘HUNGRILY’. How will you convey the meaning of that adverb without telling us the word itself? Rumbling stomachs, big eyes, licking lips etc. Act it or create a setting.

‘She stood outside the tapas bar waiting for her friends to come. It had been hours and hours and oh so many hours since she had last eaten – or so it seemed to her as her stomach grumbled ADVERBLY, What’s the adverb? No, not angrily, but sounds like it, think of the Bisto Kids…’ etc.

This is meant to be cheesy as its function is to elicit for the others to understand without being told explicitly. Naturally, when writing it’s best to AVOID ADVERBS where possible.

Theft by Catherine Anne Porter is worth highlighting in this workshop for four main reasons:

  • It shows us character development rather than telling us,
  • The narrator has no name (thus becoming everyman?),
  • More than the handbag has been stolen.
  • Point of View

The story begins with the narrator coming out of the bathroom and remembering that she definitely still had the handbag when she came in last night, though she had been somewhat the worse for wear. The story then recounts a few incidents which reveal that she has almost no money and that love seems to have passed her by. Then there is an almost throw away reference to the handbag. The narrator is complimented on it the night before when she opens it to pay a small part of the taxi fare as she makes her way home.

All she says is, ‘It’s a birthday present…and I like it.’

We now know it is important to her, that she has very little money in it, but do not know anything else, except a couple of pages later we find that the handbag held a letter. A sad letter. We understand that some relationship has ended. That seemingly it is her fault and that it hurt. Her actions betray her real pain,

‘Carefully she tore the letter into narrow strips and touched a lighted match to them in the coal grate.’

Somehow, this handbag seemed connected to the letter and to her life. Catherine Anne Porter has painted us a picture of motivation and desire. We now care. Half way down page four (of six) we learn,

‘…She came out of the bathroom to get a cigarette from the package in the purse. The purse was gone. She dressed and made coffee, and sat by the window while she drank it. Certainly the janitress had taken the purse, and certainly it would be impossible to get it back without a great deal of ridiculous excitement. Then let it go. With this decision of her mind, there rose coincidentally in her blood a deep almost murderous anger…’

There are various reasons why she may want her handbag back, but when we find that it has no money in it what has the author achieved? What other motivators are there?

Anyhow, as you expected, she asked the janitress for it back.

‘…”There isn’t any money in it. It was a present, and I don’t want to lose it.” The janitress turned without straightening up and peered at her with hot flickering eyes, a red light reflected from the furnace in them. “What do you mean, your purse?”  “The gold cloth purse you took from the wooden bench in my room,” she said. “I must have it back.” “Before God I never laid eyes on your purse, and that’s the holy truth,” said the janitress. “Oh, well then, keep it,” she said, but in a very bitter voice, “keep it if you want it so much.” And she walked away. She remembered how she had never locked a door in her life, on some principle of rejection in her that made her uncomfortable in the ownership of things, and her paradoxical boast before the warnings of her friends, that she had never lost a penny by theft; and she had been pleased with the bleak humility of this concrete example designed to illustrate and justify a certain fixed, otherwise baseless and general faith which ordered the movements of her life without regard to her will in the matter.’

The narrator was right; the janitress had taken the handbag – for her almost seventeen year old granddaughter. She gave the bag back but felt it belonged, morally, to her granddaughter ‘…She’s got young men after her maybe will want to marry her. She oughta have nice things. She needs them bad right now. You’re a grown woman you’ve had your chance. You ought to know how it is.’

Then there is a tussle where the narrator gives it to the woman who decides she no longer wants it any more, Porter turns the tables by using the janitress to act affronted as if the narrator was the one who had stolen it from someone who had a greater need. At the end the narrator is alone with her handbag but it has become a pyrrhic victory,

‘She laid the purse on the table and sat down with the cup of chilled coffee, and thought I was right not to be afraid of any thief but myself, who will end by leaving me nothing.’

Catherine Anne Porter used first person narrator Point of View to give us access to this woman’s thoughts, but only at the end. In all but the last paragraph the Point of View is third person subjective.

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