Sugar Cookies

by Dub Wright 19 days ago in how to

Developing characters in fiction writing

Sugar Cookies

Shellac and Sugar Cookies

Probably a definition is in order. According to an ancient encyclopedia on my bookshelves, Shellac is an all-natural resin secreted by the female lac bug to form a cocoon, on trees in the forests of India and Thailand (tie-land). It is processed and sold as dry flakes, which are dissolved in denatured alcohol to make liquid shellac, which is used as a brush-on colorant and wood finish much like a combination of stain and polyurethane (poly-ur-a-thane). Shellac functions as a tough all-natural primer, sanding sealer, odor-blocker, stain, and high-gloss varnish.

Because dried shellac is all-natural and hypoallergenic (hypo-al-er’-gen-ic) it can actually be eaten and is often used as a candy and pill coating, it is an excellent product for use around children, chemically-sensitive or allergic individuals, pets, and those concerned about toxins and chemicals in the home. Wikipedia adds, it is often the only historically-appropriate finish for early 20th-century hardwood floors, and wooden wall and ceiling paneling.

From the time it replaced oil and wax finishes in the 1800s, shellac was the dominant wood finish in the western world until it was replaced by nitrocellulose (nitro–cell'–u-lose) lacquer in the 1920s and 1930s. It remained popular in the Southern United States through the 1950s and 1960s.

The second definition: Sugar Cookies, should need no special rhetoric. A simple recipe of flour and sugar—add a dash of vanilla, an egg, a drip of milk, a chunk of butter, and some soda —Viola, eight minutes later—sugar cookies. Best consumed with a glass of milk, or hot tea.

True, one might shellac their sugar cookies, thus preserving them for another time, however the life of a sugar cookie in my house is much too short for worries about preservation.

If not preservation, then how do the two items come together for a discussion? That, I hope, my readers will learn as this diatribe continues.

Let me begin by posing a question. Have you ever sat in a meeting, a conference, a church service, train station, or perhaps an airline terminal, for the sole purpose to study people?

If you have, you are either a deviate or a fiction writer—perhaps both. Many times my students have asked me—how do you come up with characters? It’s really very simple—watch people.

Not everyone is a fiction writer however, every person creates fictional characters during each human interaction. For a simpler term, we call this act—judgment. Orson Card, in his book Characters and Viewpoint uses this illustration:

If you are at a party and you see the same guy spill a drink, talk too loudly, and make inappropriate or rude remarks, those actions will cause you to make a judgment.

If a person makes a note about this person, then they have created a plausible character. File that in the back of your mind; we’ll use it later.

Now, let's add another step in the character description—motive. Characters do not remain idle in space —they have reasons for their action. What if the drunk rude guy was acting that way to distract the hostess and guests from another event in the room —perhaps a murder—see how our character has quickly developed.

A character is more than what he or she does. He is also what he means to do. Each character has a past. What if the character had been a disgruntled CIA operative who had been drummed out of the organization?

What is his reputation, what can be known about him?

Now then, the next time you encounter a drunk at a party, make a note—he might be a spy in your next novel.

Characters are where a writer might find them, even in the city dump.

Here is the introduction of a character from a short story I wrote a couple of years ago.

"I didn’t expect to meet anyone at the garbage dump; but fate has a strange habit of rearing its head at the most inopportune times. The dump is a huge area near our town, where all of the city garbage trucks deliver their loads.

She was there, before I arrived. From my viewpoint she appeared to be an attractive young woman, in business clothes, and she was bent over a stack of trash, poking though the green bags."

Hopefully, the question is… why is a well dressed woman in a garbage dump? Where can this story go?

Most fiction writers carry notebooks—characters are collected, notes on conversations, actions, even attitudes are captured. Ideas for characters come from many different venues. Some ideas simply come from life. Remember, what seems ordinary to one person might seem strange to someone else.

An example: I tutored a Chinese gentleman for several months. Truly, he was fresh off a jet from an interment camp. And, sent to me by the State Department. During our work I discovered his interest in things we take for granted. A good example might be our super markets, or in a less physical sense—personal pronouns. Indeed, the things I learned from him are recorded for a future character. Life in general has so much to offer.

Another good source is watching strangers. Personally, this is my favorite. I once sat in the O’Hare airport terminal for six hours, writing character sketches. I had gone to Chicago for a creative thinking seminar, got snowed in, and decided to make use of my time. This process of creating characters doesn’t come easy, so often in my writing classes, when students are perplexed with character development, I go to my box of dead relatives. Somehow, looking at a picture helps students to visualize.

Last year while visiting our son and grandkids in St. Louis, Missouri, we walked along the river front development. Near the walkway was a homeless woman—a bag lady if you will—who didn’t seem to have a care in the world, other than a chew of tobacco, which she liberally spat on the sidewalk. I went back to the hotel and composed the skeleton of a short story—I’ll share the opening with you.

“Cotton Bea, Cotton Bea.” Dorothy threw a blanket over her old mule. “Ol mule, me’n’you movin on. Yes, sir, da town man done sayd, ol Dorthty git yer mule an move along.” She spat a wad of tobacco on the ground. “Cotton Bea, Cotton Bea,” she almost sang as she loaded her goods. “De ain’t gonna llow no gypsies in der fine camp. Cotton Bea, Cotton Bea.”

Some authorities tell young writers to take their characters from folks that they know. Well, we indeed know their quirks, their physical descriptions; certainly, we know all their warts.

Card lists several reasons to be cautious about using relatives as characters.

1. Taking characters from “your personal life” can lead to bad fiction.

Card notes that you really don’t know these folks as well as you think you do. You can’t be inside their head, know their memories or their soul. Also, remember, with real live people and incidents, your readers don’t know that the event was not fiction. A reader only needs information to make a scene plausible.

2. Taking characters from “real life” can lead to personal problems.

If your friends or family members recognize themselves you can be in a world of trouble. Nobody sees his or her self the way someone else does, if you think a mirror is embarrassing, have someone write about you.

I take a modified stand on this. I know many of the people in my church. My favorites are the elderly females—and believe me, my church has a large population of older adults. Anyway, for years I have watched and noted these wonderful ladies, and have recorded multiple stories about the ones I know, and combined those ideas with the stories of friends who have contributed tales. Several of these stories have been published individually, and I hope my current favorite publisher will see fit to print a composite book. The stories have three distinct elderly widows. Here is a cutting from The Twin Rivers Widows Club:

"A half hour later they arrived at the park, where the three discovered a good many others had already arrived and taken all the close parking spaces. After several fruitless minutes, Dora Mae finally parked her big Buick about a block away—in a lot belonging to one of the banks.

“It figures,” said Elsie, as she opened the trunk and handed us our aluminum lawn chairs.

Dora Mae and Bea looked at each other in puzzlement. Then both looked at Elsie, and said simultaneously, “What?”

Elsie picked up her chair and started walking, waving her hand toward the park. “They’ve got a Baptist preacher this morning and you know those Baptists can draw a crowd,” then without so much as a pause, “I wonder if there’s refreshments. I could use a biscuit or something. Although, I do have some of my sugar cookies in my pocket in case I get hungry.”

Dora Mae nudged Elsie from behind with her chair, “Refreshments? For heaven’s sake, Elsie, it’s a church service not a social.”

You might have picked up on Elsie and Dora Mae’s characters. Elsie is the carefree and a bit silly lady who always has cookies. Dora Mae is the forceful member of the group. I have had a ball with the ladies, and have many new stories, contributed by friends to add to the collection. The same three ladies are in every congregation and denomination.

If family and friends are not enough, a writer might decide to write about his or herself. Making own-self into a fictional character is not as easy as it may seem. Nobody reading this has ever murdered anyone, at least I hope not. I don’t think anyone is serving time on death row. My guess is that most writers here are reasonable drivers, are not having whirlwind affairs across the globe, or struggling through the Amazon jungle. Writing about one’s self can be challenging.

A person can interview his/her self—who else knows all the hidden truths? A person knows their own real feelings, attitudes, likes, and dislikes; also, they know their own dark side.

But, what if self-identity is too difficult. Some folks can’t imagine their own image doing some things. Analogy works in this case, application of a circumstance that a writer has actually done and then projected a character into that scene.

Here’s an example: I have been on board cargo ships, and marveled at the way the containers are stacked. What if I was a spy who was locked in a cargo hold?

“My head pounded with the constant drumming, drumming which combined with fumes and soot to choke and gag me. I struggled to raise myself but something burned on my scalp, a cut or a scrape was my guess. I reached to touch my head but my jacket pulled at my arm. Whatever it was that was on my scalp found its way through my matted hair and dripped into my eyes.”

Here’s another example:

“The clerk told me the tux was a 40 long—he lied. The threads tore as my hand extended toward her. The last thing I remembered was the beautiful woman I met at the opera, we had left together after the first encore. The ebony red head sat across from me saying those things only grownups say in uncomfortable situations.”

Memory, or memoirs contain a world of characters. Several folks I know are taking a memoir writing class. My guess is that the instructor will pull from the memoirs those characters who will dominate a novel. I have a number of short stories built around memories. Add a fictional element and the character reveals his or herself. Let me share a bit from a short story that won some minor recognition.

"Aunt Flo played the old piano like shoeing the nag tied to the back porch. Well meaning Christians saved the old piano from a fire of suspicious origins. It seems the blaze started in an upstairs bedroom of a local brothel. At my young age I neither knew what the word brothel meant nor why any of the local Christian men knew that a piano was located inside of the ornate Victorian structure located on the outskirts of the village of Pumpkin Center."

My fondest memories of the old church were the shellacked pews and my aunt playing the old piano. The story line is the fictional part.

Sometimes, finding new memories is the key to developing a character. Take a point in time, develop or consider the people and the circumstances; perhaps your scout troop, or Zumba class, or maybe a trip to a foreign land. In a recent trip to Britain I watched two women sitting in the sun. It was the first day of sun in some time, and I guessed it was the only sun that had shone for a long time prior. I wrote this from that memory.

“It was quite bright, actually too bright for any decent reading while reclining in the sunshine. Marion adjusted her chair such that her toes were pointed more or less toward the oncoming sun. She tipped her head back on the chair and uttered a peaceful, “Ah.”

Lucy, the neighbor stuck her head out the window. “Getting a bit of sunshine are we?”

“No, daffy, tis how I wait for the trolley.”

I hope I captured the characterization of these two women.

Not all characters will be dynamic, having attributes to make them change. Some will be static. Lynn Baker, Professor of English at Kansas State University, said it this way.

"A static character, in this vocabulary, is one that does not undergo important change in the course of the story, remaining essentially the same at the end as he or she was at the beginning. A dynamic character, in contrast, is one that does undergo an important change in the course of the story."

I have seen the terms for characters vary, but Ms Baker’s definition is the most concise. We all want to develop dynamic characters, but imagine reading a novel filled with dynamic people changing. Here is an example of a static and dynamic character interacting in my novel September Fog.

"Nan swatted a fly with a rolled up file folder. “Oh, man, blood and guts all over the place.”

“Yuk,” said a staffer standing near. She tore a tissue out the box and handed it to Nan. “I suppose that’s the folder I am supposed to pick up?”

Nan nodded her head. “Yup. Hereya go.”"

Naturally, every story has an antagonist and a protagonist. Everyone loves or should love the protagonist of a story. Joyce Lavene in Everything Guide to Writing a Novel, states,

Readers don’t mind if the character is a little rough around the edges or even if they are their own worst enemy. All a reader wants is a personality so strong, so fascinating that the reader cannot look away.

The Antagonist is the protagonist nemesis. It must be someone that the reader loves to hate. The best kind of antagonist is one that the hero can stand up to but not easily overpower.

Sometimes the antagonist is unseen. Here is a scene from my work-in-progress novel, A Crepe Heart.

“Peux-je voir votre journal s'il vous plaît? (Can I see your journal please?)” A soft voice broke the stillness of the vacant station. She had seated herself behind me.

I rolled up a section of the newspaper and passed it over my shoulder. “Speak English, there’s nobody here. Besides, my French is for revolution not for polite society.”

She took the paper from me. “You’re late you know. What’s this?”

Obviously, she had discovered the two envelopes I had hidden between the pages.

“The brown you’re expecting.” I waited but there was no reply. “The other’s a valentine, today is Valentine’s day.”

The fun part is naming characters. I get my names from the phone book, baby books, and internet lists. Remember, the name given a character will be a defining object. A name is a link to a family and culture. The name chosen might suggest ethnicity—O’Conner, for example.

Characters names should not have the same first letters, unless there is a purpose—Marion and Martin, the twins. And while we are at it, only one name per person—even though a spouse or closest friend may have a few other names for individual, a character can have only one name—there are exceptions.

A special note, and I learned this the hard way—don’t make readers have to have a program—too many named-characters in a novel is confusing. Some popular authors have resorted to a playlist in the front of their books.

Finally, I want to discuss character emotion. Arguably, the most important thing a writer can cause is emotion in the reader. And, we do that through projected emotions of the character. At New York University, a student can take an entire course to learn writing emotions. Strange isn’t it, we live through a million emotions every day, but find them hard to put on paper. Poor writers take short cuts with emotions and rely on clichés. It is easy to fall into the “green with envy” trap. Finding a way to capture an emotion is tough. I try to pose emotion in characters without a banner announcement. Here is an example of emotion in one my characters from the novel St. Zita’s Tears.

“Nan winced, took a deep breath, and squeezed her way in the front door of the lounge and began looking for her boss."

Ann Hood, in her book, Creating Character Emotions, identifies 36 emotions commonly found in fiction: everything from Anger to Worry.

This is not an exhaustive study, just a scratch at the surface. Look around, the characters are there, waiting to be discovered. Remember the drunk at the party?

From shellacked pews to sugar cookies, six year olds to older adults—characters are everywhere—even in your imagination.

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Dub Wright

Curmudgeon; overeducated; hack writer; too much time in places not fit for habitation.  

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