Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Category: Uncategorized (page 2 of 6)

From the Forge: Characterization, Creating Complex Characters, Part III

Because human beings are inherently complex, characterization in fiction is itself a complex process. Appearance and action, the two methods of characterization we looked at in my last From the Forge post, obviously reveal character, but they may also be used to hide or disguise some elements of character. A character’s actions may even be used to mislead the reader temporarily.

This complexity of characterization is heightened when a writer turns to speech and thought as methods. Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, says that “speech represents an effort . . . to externalize the internal and to manifest not merely taste of preference but also deliberated thought.” Put simply, Burroway is saying that we attempt to say what we mean, what we think. But there, of course, lies the problem. As Hamlet says, “Words, words, words.” We have all experienced the struggle of putting our thoughts and feelings clearly into words, while avoiding misunderstanding. But that very difficulty can create great opportunity for the writer.

What is more human than hiding our true feelings and either saying nothing or saying what we do not really mean? What is more human than misunderstanding our own intentions, or more human than hurting another person with words that were innocently spoken?

The writer can use these struggles, manipulating the conflict between methods of characterization—for example, between what is thought and what is said, or between what is thought and what is done—to great effect.

In Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of the two characters–the man–says to the other character–the woman–four times, “I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do.” The reader knows, has in fact known from the first time he says it, that the man does want her to do something she doesn’t want to do, which is have an abortion. His selfish nature and his duplicity are revealed by the conflict between what he says at those four points and everything else he says and does.

Hemingway doesn’t have to tell the reader anything about the man’s thoughts or feelings, because he has revealed the man’s nature through the clash between his words and actions.

 

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Frigate Birds, Part II

Okay, remember those Frigate Birds I was so fascinated with? So I told my next door neighbor here in Caye Caulker how much I liked the frigate birds. He says, you want to feed them? And I say, what do you mean, feed them? And he says, just a minute. And he gets on his bike and rides around the corner and buys some sardines–but these were not the sardines we buy at IGA. They were sardines the size of perch. And we walk out onto the pier, and he waves a sardine/perch in the air, and the frigate birds drop out of the sky and snatch the sardine/perch right out of his hand. So I had to do it too. Like a half dozen times I had to do it. It was amazing. These magnificent birds with wingspans as wide as I am tall swooped down and took the sardine/perch out of my hand without touching as much as my finger. I loved it.

So then my neighbor, Chris, a Canadian and the best possible person to live next to, says, come on. And we follow him across the island (which is only 165 yards wide  here) to a pier on the other side. And he waves a sardine over the top of the water and about twenty tarpon, fish that look like GIANT carp, or maybe baby shark, come swarming around under his hand, and one of them snatches the sardine. Now, the only problem with ME feeding the tarpon is that a half dozen pelicans (I know, I know, the pelican the pelican its beak holds more than its belly can) come flapping over and refuse to let us give sardines to the tarpon. So hey, I like pelicans better than tarpon anyway, so I feed the pelicans.  And one pelican got a little overzealous and snatched my hand AND the sardine. (See video here: IMG_3059-2) Which was actually a little funny, even if it did draw just a little blood. But there were no hard feelings. And Mary Ann actually petted one of the pelicans. And all things considered, it was one of the best afternoons we have had.  And I say, Thanks to Chris and

“O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!”

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Frigate Birds on Caye Caulker

Okay, I don’t know what it is exactly about the frigate birds that fascinates me, but I am soooo fascinated I watch them all the time. They are a constant presence in the sky above Caye Caulker, their striking dark outline soaring in the wind currents coming off the ocean. With their long beak and even longer tail, and the largest wing area to body weight ratio of any bird, they beguile me every time I look up.

The three birds that are abundant at the beach here are seagulls, pelicans, and frigate birds. I love watching them all. I may have to write a post about the pelicans next. But the frigate birds, just mysterious and alluring.

On our first visit to the island last year, a friendly islander with a big smile and a wealth of stories told us all about the “frigid bird” who stayed up in the air for many days without landing, ate only what it could steal from other birds’ nests, and whenever it did not eat for a day committed suicide by diving onto the tops of buildings or into the mangrove trees. It was a wonderful story–and mostly true.

The frigate bird can indeed stay aloft for weeks at a time, soaring. In fact, one frigate bird, tracked by satellite, stayed in the air for two months. Two months without landing. Their wingspan can reach seven-and-a-half feet. They aren’t at their best when flying by flapping their wings, they can’t walk well on their small weak legs, and they struggle to take off from the water. But gliding over the island, still and dark, rarely flapping , they seem magnificent.

And they are known as kleptoparasites because they occasionally steal food from other birds or even snatch seabird chicks out of nests. But they mostly eat fish and squid that are chased to the surface by larger predators like tuna.

The best part of our islander friend’s story, that the frigate bird commits suicide if it misses its daily meals, though not factual, simply shows how completely the bird grips the imagination. When the male is trying to attract a female, the he leans his head all the way back and throws out his huge red throat pouch. Who could resist that?

They are hypnotic. And there are a lot of them. So we are often hypnotized. And we can’t escape the feeling that it is they who are watching us, not the other way around.

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