Guest Artist: Creating Memorable Characters (Also: Chapter 6 rerun.)

Posted on October 14, 2009Filed Under Rerun, Steve Martin, The Outsiders, Writing | Leave a Comment

You can tell Susan Hinton was young when she wrote The Outsiders. Even as I read it aloud for the 60somethingth time (and still laugh and tear up), I see the repetitions and the plot holes and the shmaltz. But I don’t care, and neither do the kids. It’s the characters she created that bring the book to life. They are realistic, sympathetic characters who represent all the things that kids feel. They can see parts of themselves in various aspects of Pony (loner, spacey, high expectations for him that he has trouble living up to), Johnny (pushed around, bullied, but protected by the gang – sort of the runt of the litter), Dally (rebellious and angry, impetuous, loyal, confident), Soda (blessed with charisma, but not school-smart), Darry (the provider, the rock, but still unsure of how to play his new role as parent), Two-Bit (immature, yet wise and funny), Cherry (trapped by her image, unsure of who the real Cherry is), and so forth. (Boy howdy, as Pony would say, that was one heck of a sentence.)

So I like to remind the kids of this as we read the book. It’s really all about the characters. Steve Martin, back in 1996, wrote a piece for the New Yorker called “Writing is Easy!” Sometimes I like to share the following excerpt with the kids, just for fun, since they now know what an adjective is.

Creating Memorable Characters

Nothing will make your writing soar more than a memorable character. If there is a memorable character, the reader will keep going back to the book, picking it up, turning it over in his hands, hefting it, and tossing it into the air. Here is an example of the jazzy uplift that vivid characters can offer:

Some guys were standing around when in came this guy.

You are now on your way to creating a memorable character. You have set him up as being a guy, and with that come all the reader’s ideas of what a guy is. Soon you will liven your character by using an adjective:

But this guy was no ordinary guy, he was a red guy.

This character, the red guy, has now popped into the reader’s imagination. He is a full-blown person, with hopes and dreams, just like the reader. Especially if the reader is a red guy. Now you might want to give the character a trait. You can inform the reader of the character trait in one of two ways. First, simply say what that trait is–for example, “but this red guy was different from most red guys, this red guy liked frappes.” The other is rooted in action–have the red guy walk up to a bar and order a frappe, as in:

“What’ll you have, red guy?”

“I’ll have a frappe.”

Once you have mastered these two concepts, vivid character writing combined with adjectives, you are on your way to becoming the next Shakespeare’s brother. And don’t forget to copyright any ideas you have that might be original. You don’t want to be caught standing by helplessly while your familiar “red guy” steps up to a bar in a frappe commercial.

So there you have it. The essay was included in Steve’s book called Pure Drivel. I highly recommend it.

We got a good session of reading in today in all classes; almost everybody got through chapter six. Chapter six is a fine mixture of comedy, tragedy, and irony. Let’s go back to last year, September 29, and read about it. (See how far behind we are this year?!)

My friendly and sensitive class is also the furthest ahead in the novel. When Johnny tells Dally that he wants to turn himself in, and Dally flips out and tells Johnny that he doesn’t want him to “end up like me,” we stop and talk about Dally. This class is quick to realize that Dally does care about something; Johnny. It’s a revelation to Pony too.

“Aww. He doesn’t want Johnny to be like him. That’s so sweet.” They suddenly forget that Dally is a hoodlum, and the groundwork is laid for chapter 10.

This is also where, I read somewhere, that S. E. Hinton got stuck as she was writing. The boys were in the church, and she didn’t know what should happen next. She went to her friends at school, and they suggested that she “burn down the church,” and see what happens. This is good place for us to discuss what it is that makes this such a great book.

“See, it isn’t just that there’s action and such, it’s that she has created characters that we care about. Realistic characters we can relate to.” (They don’t know from not ending a sentence with a preposition.)

Then the fire. Again, this crew is quick to pick up on why Johnny is happy for once in his life.

“Somebody needs him! He’s important! He’s wanted!” Eggggscellent.

In chapter six, they love:
How Johnny says Jerry Wood didn’t follow them into the church because he was too fat.
Johnny yelling “Shut up” at one of the kids they’re saving.
Johnny throwing kids out the window.
When the kid bites Pony.
Dally yelling “Forget those blasted kids.”
The irony of Pony wanting to take off Dally’s jacket because it was too hot, Jerry Wood calling them “professional heroes,” and of Pony smoking in the waiting room after being treated for smoke inhalation.

It’s great how S. E. Hinton puts some of the funniest lines in the chapter where Johnny gets hurt. Irony, and all that.

Then Darry cries. I try not to look up as I’m reading, but I don’t have to. Suddenly everybody is stopped up and snurfling, and in need of a tissue (which I happen to be out of — better send one of my student aides down to the office to stock up).

Wait until chapter 9.

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