How to Evoke a Unique, Human Character—Not a Generic One

Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Learn more about getting a first-page critique.


First Page

Lainie was scraping the last bit of peanut butter out of the jar when the land-line rang. She didn’t pick up; her friends only called her cell. The ancient answering machine clicked on and a perky, professional voice chirped “Tini Ferrari here, KNWD-TV?” Lainie knew that name. Pronounced teeny. Everything she said sounded like a question. “I’m phoning about a possible New Year’s Eve interview with Madeleine Stanton? I understand you were Ohio’s first millennium baby? I’d love to talk to you about a feature we’re doing, now that you’re turning twelve. Give me a call?” Tini gave a phone number and clicked off.

A feature on 2K-babies, on TV! She’d be the star, having come into the world at precisely midnight at the turn of the millennium to 2000. It had been years since anyone had mentioned it. It might be fun to be in the spotlight for a few minutes. An image of herself surrounded by kids at school flashed through her mind. But what if something went wrong—if she belched, or got sweaty? Or said something stupid? If she messed up on TV? The worst moment of her life would become unerasable entertainment online for the world to see forever—potential boyfriends, colleges, employers—it could end all hope of a normal life!

Anyway, Dad and the Uncs wouldn’t like it. They’d probably freak-out at the attention it would bring to the family. Lainie was wondering whether to ask her dad when she heard the stamp of his boots in the mudroom. A minute later he walked in in his stocking feet, face red from the cold, briefcase under one arm.

“Hey, kitten,” he said, patting her shoulder as he moved past her toward his study.

Lainie followed. “Dad, wait! We—er, I—just got this phone call.”

He went to his desk and started pulling papers out of his case, but raised an eyebrow as though listening, so she pressed on. “That TV reporter Tini Ferrari? She wants to interview me! On TV! They’re doing a story on kids born at the millennium. What do you think? Should I do it?” She blurted out the reason she was afraid he’d say no. “Do you think it would bother the Uncs? I mean, she’s not gonna ask about, well, about what happened . . .”

“Hmm,” he said, pawing through the papers and frowning. “So, do you need a new dress? Or to get your hair done? You can take my credit card.”

“Dad.”

He looked up blankly.

She couldn’t stop herself from mocking him. “Get my ‘hair done’?”

“I’m sorry, honey—I guess I wasn’t listening. Is it important?”

Lainie sighed with frustration, but seeing the anxiety on his face—anxiety that meant he had another long evening of student papers to grade before he could even think of working on his book—she ran to hug him. “No,” she said. “Never mind. Hey—it’s Grampa’s chili night! With cornbread. I’m starved!”

In her room, Lainie tore through math, then English. Sliding her textbooks back into her pack, she thought of her dad and his weary face. He was so desperate to publish a book. He needed it to keep his job at Kenwood college. The writing was practically done. Still, for some reason he couldn’t quite finish it. The stress was making him weird. Every night he came home and went straight to his study, emerging only for a quick dinner. She couldn’t imagine what else her dad would do if he lost his teaching job. As far as she knew, he didn’t have any actual skills.


First-Page Critique

This first page is really closer to two pages, but I’ve decided to let the overage stand to make a point that I’ll get to later on in this critique. But first let me talk about the things that are working well here. There are many.

This opening starts off with an inciting incident. It does so dramatically, through the action of a telephone (“land-line”) ringing. Of course, from the first sentence we have no way of knowing for sure that the phone call is important, let alone that it’s the action or event that will yank one or more protagonists out of their status-quo existence and into a plot. But given the event’s positioning in what is arguably the most valuable piece of real estate in any story—the first sentence—it’s a safe bet that this phone call will amount to something greater than a robocall or a wrong number.

And note the clever introduction within the same sentence of what at first glance might seem like an arbitrary and irrelevant, if not an impudent, detail: the protagonist, Lainie, “scraping the last bit of peanut butter out of [a] jar.” How can such a trivial detail possibly justify its claim to the front-row center seat of sentences? By doing what every sentence in a work of fiction—or, for that matter, nonfiction—should at the very least try to do: evoking character. I’ve said it elsewhere: Anything we do as writers that evokes character is to the good. Conversely, every sentence or passage we write that doesn’t in any way evoke or convey some quality or essence of humanity, that merely supplies information about or describes things, should arouse suspicion.

And just what does “scraping the last bit of peanut butter out of [a] jar” convey about the character named Lainie? First and foremost: that she’s a human being, for only human beings scrape peanut butter from bottoms of jars, at least as far as I know. But the action also tells us something more about Lainie; namely, that she is the type of person who scrapes peanut butter out of the bottom of a jar. If only we knew whether she does so with one or more fingers, or with knife or fork, it would tell us even more, but never mind; you get the idea. Characters are most efficiently and effectively defined by their actions, by the things they do, and that includes the littlest things, like whether they put their stockings or their skirts on first (to “skirt” a cliché).

The point is that with this first sentence we not only get a telephone ringing, and, with it, the expectation of some important or fateful news, we get a human character—not a generic human character, but one who is already particular.

The next thing this opening does well: it thoroughly and consistently engages the experience of a character by way of its third-person narrator. It does so through a technique called free indirect discourse, also known as free indirect style or method — or, in sexier, r-rolling French, discours indirect libre. All that means is that the narrator is free to dip in and out of the point-of-view character’s (in this case Lainie) interior dialogue or stream-of-consciousness whenever he/she/it (third-person narrators being distinct from their authors and nameless, we can’t assume their sex, or even if they’ve got one) wishes.

And so when we read “The ancient answering machine clicked on and a perky, professional voice chirped …” we intuit that the opinions expressed by the words “ancient” and “perky,” and the comparison of the “professional voice” to a bird’s, reflect not only Lainie’s consciousness, but her vocabulary. They are her words, or anyway they’re the sort of words she would use to describe those things.

Read through the rest of this first page, and time and again you’ll find Lainie’s personality infusing the third-person voice, to where at moments it reads exactly like a first-person narrative: “Anyway, Dad and the Uncs wouldn’t like it. They’d probably freak-out at the attention it would bring to the family.”

Should you as an author ever find yourself torn between first and third-person, you can do worse than avail yourself of the free indirect method. It lets you have your cake and eat it, too.

Your First Page SelginNow to the issue I mentioned in the first paragraph. My one problem with this opening comes with the last paragraph, where from Lainie’s perspective we learn of the stress her professor father, who must “publish or perish,” has been under, having so far failed to do the former.

Though this insight into her father’s predicament is valuable, it comes in the wrong place, without motivation, with Lainie tearing “through math, then English” textbooks in her room. For no particular reason in the midst of her studies she thinks of “her dad and his weary face.” Might not the same thought and the awareness that comes with it be better motivated and more moving if it happened earlier, when she sees the anxious look on his face, rather than when she thinks of it later?

Otherwise, this is a very strong first page—or rather two strong ones.


Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)

Posted in First Page Critiques, Guest Post.

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2008). He has published a novel, Life Goes To the Movies (Dzanc, 2009), three books on the craft of fiction writing (Writer's Digest, Serving House Books, Broadview Press), and a children’s picture book, S.S. Gigantic Across the Atlantic (Simon & Schuster). His first essay collection, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man (University of Iowa, 2012), was a finalist for the William Saroyan International Prize. A novel-in-manuscript, “The Water Master,” won the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for Best Novel. His memoir, The Inventors (Hawthorne Books), which won the Housatonic Book Award, was among Library Journal’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2016. He is Associate Professor of English at Georgia College & State University. Find out more at his website.

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Marrah SS McIntyreLiz CharnesPeter SelginPJ ReeceVictoria Waddle Recent comment authors

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Maggie Smith

I was immediately engaged and thought this first page or two also did something else – set the tone of the book. It’s going to be about a plucky 12-year old, someone who’d like to get a little attention if not from her Dad than from her peers but is a bit shy, she’s got a distinction (first millenium baby- and what a great way to establish the time frame of the story without being heavy-handed about it) also it’s got a mystery (what do the Unc’s not want found out – and oh, by the way, who ARE these… Read more »

Peter Selgin
Peter Selgin

I very much agree, Maggie. Of course, “tone” and what some people call “voice,” which comes down to the quality or personality of the narrator, amount to the same thing. So much of what makes a piece of writing strong comes down to creating a successful narrator. In fact everything comes down to it. Our narrators need to to have as much thought and creativity put into them as any character, since they ARE characters. And not just any character[s], but the one[s] who run[s] the show!

Victoria Waddle

I see in the description of “Your First Page” on Amazon that it has been revised for classroom and workshop use. I was thinking of buying it to use at home. Do you recommend its use outside of workshops?

Peter Selgin
Peter Selgin

Yes, of course. What makes this edition more suitable for workshops and classrooms is the addition of writing prompts/exercises at the end of each page discussion. But other significant improvements have been made to the original edition. And it’s quite a handsome book—not at all “textbooky.”

PJ Reece

Thanks heaps for this reminder … I’m rewinding to my Page One right now to make sure my young protagonist is giving himself away with his every action. And that my narrator — in free indirect style — establishes a compelling tone. The thing is … I know all this BUT … one forgets! As a I say, thanks a mill for the reminder.

Peter Selgin
Peter Selgin

You’re most welcome, PJ Reece. I’m sure it will turn out well.

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Liz Charnes

Great hook, really colorful, but my only quibble (for what its worth) was that she seemed older. I was surprised when I was told she was 12. She seemed 16 or 17 to me. Who knows, I have been reading a lot of YA. Otherwise, I thought it was great!

Marrah SS McIntyre
Marrah SS McIntyre

Thank you for being so explicit. By getting into specifics (and I love the discours indirect libre, which I use all the time but always wondered if it was allowed ) I find it easy to understand your points. Of course this got me scrambling back to my WIP and I feel confident that it would pass (or come close to passing) your first pages test. It’s actually a prologue, although there’s no inciting incident per se. That happens in Chapter One, which opens 38 years earlier. I’m going to search out more of your advice. I find it relatable.