Developing Character by Integrating Interesting Facts

Apr 19, 2013
Posted by: tbaker

I remember reading something by Ralph Fletcher (maybe it was "Keeping a Writer's Notebook") in which he talked about how he always kept a writer's notebook with him, so that he could write down interesting facts that he heard to use later in a piece of writing. I'm a person drawn to interesting facts. I love the sort of "cocktail party milieu" -- places where you get to talk to a lot of people for short periods of time, hopefully people who do different work or have different hobbies from you, places where you can get such people to start talking to you about what they know, where they can delight or surprise you with a fun fact about which you know nothing. I also like NPR, Charlie Rose, and the history channel for much the same reason.
In the cocktail party milieu, however, the fun facts are connected to those who deliver them. You feel like you've learned something not only about the topic, but also about the person who shared this with you. Who is this? What does it tell me about him that he knows and cares about this?
Writers also develop character through this method. For a couple of examples, see "Conjoined" a short story by Nathan Cummings (TBTW, 2012, p. 213-216) or "Still Winter Comes" a poem by Ashley Huang (TBTW, p. 70). In "Conjoined" the speaker, born a conjoined twin, describes having seen a picture of his twin, not fully formed or able to survive at birth. He says "Scientists talk about the "uncanny valley" effect with robots: the closer something gets to normal, the more eerie and unnerving the remaining differences look." Throughout the story the speaker has been trying to explain his frustration at never being more than the surviving conjoined twin, being defined by that. In this simple sentence he reveals a particular interest... here's a guy who knows about robots, AI, the uncanny valley. Instead of telling us this about his main character, Cummings reveals it through the metaphor the speaker uses to explain his experience.
"Still Winter Comes" begins with the lines "Quantum theory states:/ We are all earthbound matter, and yet/ We act as dreamlike waves." The poem is a break up poem. The speaker, through physics metaphors referencing protons, Bohr, Schrodinger, quarks and neutrinos, describes her inability to hold on to her beloved. What is revealed about the speaker through the fact that the language in which she describes her relationship is the relationship of physics?
Clearly, I am not a scientist, which may be why these examples of development via scientific facts is so noticeable and interesting to me.
Do you see other examples, from other texts? Please share through the comment function.


What do you know

Submitted by Abdel on Sun, 2013-04-28 07:47.

That's an interesting point about characterizing through what a character knows. You find out a lot about someone from what knowledge they choose to share. I find that the fiction that I like best often has something new to tell me about the world, not just the characters.

In the hands of a good writer, this type of "cocktail party" information not only gives you something new to think about, but serves as a frame through which you can understand the events and ideas of the story. It's a sophisticated point, but something our students definitely need to be aware of in order to read and write more deeply.

Witch's Lullaby

Submitted by Shaun on Sun, 2013-04-28 07:53.

Tanya I definitely agree with you on loving interesting facts about people. Then I got to thinking how this may apply to fictional texts and how characters in the land of make believe also develop through "facts." I put facts in quotations because they are only as true as the author wants them to be for the character.

With that in mind, looking at Witch's Lullaby by Jacqueline Knight (pg 221, TBTW 2012) I was impressed how Ms. Knight took a familiar character - The Wicked Witch of the West - and added depth to her by giving her maternal instincts (which is a fact we never see in the movie.) I keep thinking back to your cocktail party milieu reference and I picture seeing the Wicked Witch of the West from Ms. Knight's flash fiction piece holding a martini of some kind. If you approached her at this party, one would discover she is not as wicked as her appearance would indicate because according to Ms. Knight she has been around the block before and she is no different than any other mother trying to protect her son.

So whether fiction or non-fiction, facts or "facts" are useful tools to develop a character. As the song in Bert Bacharach's musical "Promises, Promises" says: a fact can be a beautiful thing.