May’s theme is all about characters, my favorite aspect of writing. All my stories are character-driven. Once I know my main characters, I can run with my plots and settings. Reading about characters who touch me or with whom I identify inspires me to develop my own.
I have lots of favorites, but these are some of the characters I visit over and over again.
Last Tuesday, I compared adverbs to paroled felons because of the ban most writers have placed on them. Writing about the pitiful adverb as a hated outcast of society was a lot of fun. Personification is one my favorite kinds of figurative language. It offers writers such a range of possibilities for comparisons. The suggestions below are only two possibilities.
Some of the funniest pieces of writing I’ve come across use personification. My two favorite humor writers, Patrick F. McManus and P.G. Wodehouse, used the technique many times.
From “Controlling My Life” in the book Real Ponies Don’t Go Oink! by Patrick F. McManus: “I just read a book on how to get control of my time and therefore of my life. My time has always had a tendency to slip away from me and do as it pleases. My life follows it, like a puppy after an untrained bird dog. Come night, my life shows up, usually covered with mud and full of stickers, exhausted by grinning happily. My time never returns.”
In numerous short stories, Mr. McManus describes his dog from his childhood, Strange, as if he is a disreputable human relative.
From “Strange Meets Matilda Jean” in Real Ponies Don’t Go Oink!, he writes that when he would throw a stick and tell his dog to fetch, Strange “… would give me this insolent stare, which said, ‘Fetch it yourself, dumbo. You threw it.’ Then he would flip a cigarette butt at me, blow out a stream of smoke, and slouch back into his doghouse.”
Mr. Wodehouse often wrote about dogs in his stories and used personification to describe them, among other objects.
From “The Go-Getter” in Blandings Castle, two dogs battle it out in the drawing room of a country house during a party. Mr. Wodehouse describes the thought processes of a mutt named Bottles. “And, feeling that all these delightful people were relying on him to look after their interests and keep alien and subversive influences at a distance, he advanced with a bright willingness to the task of ejecting this intruder.”
From Over Seventy, Mr. Wodehouse writes about three hurricanes that hit his area of Long Island in one season. “Our hurricanes were Carol and Edna. Dolly, their sister, a nice girl, went out to sea, but Carol gave us all she had got, and so eleven days later did Edna.
Using humorous personification doesn’t have to be confined to humorous stories. Rex Stout uses it in his murder mysteries because his main character, private detective Archie Goodwin, has a considerable sense of humor.
In And Be a Villain, Archie is on a stakeout and has skipped breakfast. “My stomach had decided that since it wasn’t going to be needed any more it might as well try shriveling into a ball and see how I liked that. I tried to kid it along by swallowing, but because I hadn’t brushed my teeth it didn’t taste like me at all, so I tried spitting instead, but that only made my stomach shrivel faster.” Later when Archie finally gets something to eat, he writes, “My stomach and I made up, and we agreed to forget it ever happened.”
There’s something inherently creepy about things acting like humans. Perhaps it’s simply because such behavior goes against accepted norms. When a writer uses human qualities to describe inanimate objects, the reader senses something is wrong.
The mysteries featuring the detective Uncle Abner are set in West Virginia before the Civil War. In “Th Wrong Hand” from Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries, Abner and his tweenage nephew Martin go the house of a man, whom Abner suspects of murdering his brother. Martin is afraid of the man because his back is hunched. They enter the house on the stormy, winter’s night. Martin’s descriptions underline his uneasiness. “The wind whooped and spat in the chimney” and “A gust of wind caught the loose sash in the casement behind us and shook it as one, barred out and angry, shakes a door.”
I have worked on and off on a murder mystery set in October with the climax coming on Halloween night. The main character and his friends are venturing to an abandoned house where he thinks proof to a seventy-year-old murder is buried. “The wind blowing through the deserted streets was like sighs of relief. Trick-or-treating and all that kids’s stuff was over. Now the night could get down to the grown-up job of being the most wicked holiday of the year.”
What kind of figurative language do you use in your writing?
I learned that an engaging narrator, once he or she grabs the reader’s attention, can lead a reader anywhere.
Mr. Stout wrote 46 books in the Wolfe-Goodwin series, many of them collections of short stories or novellas. The mysteries are decent, some better than others. My personal favorites are the novellas “Black Orchids”, “Die Like a Dog”, and “Kill Now – Pay Later”, the seasonal short stories in And Four to Go, and the first novel I read Too Many Cooks. But I didn’t work my way through the series for the plots. I forget a lot of them and can reread the stories, trying to figure out the clues like it was my first time through. What I loved was being carried away with Archie’s wry narration of events. He’s like a an old friend I can rely on for an entertaining visit.
Here are a few lines I enjoy:
“When I feel superior to someone, which I frequently do, I need a better reason than the color of my skin.”
Describing a fight he and fellow P.I. Saul Panzer get in with a suspect: “He kicked Saul where it hurt, and knocked a lamp over, and bumped my nose with his skull. When he sank his teeth in my arm I thought, That will do for you, mister, and jerked the Marley from my pocket and slapped him above the ear, and he went down.” From “Fourth of July Picnic”
In Too Many Cooks, he calls one woman, “the swamp-woman — the kind who can move her eyelids slowly three times and you’re stuck in a marsh and might as well give up”.
Since I write in first-person, I need to give my narrator a distinct personality, with a unique way of describing people and events. Giving him or her strong opinions also makes the narrator interesting. Archie has an opinion on everything. Because my narrator is a teenager, it’s easy to give him strong opinions, such as he hates country music, which makes him stand out in rural West Virginia.
Another of my favorite authors P.G. Wodehouse said, “Stout’s supreme triumph was the creation of Archie Goodwin.” Millions of readers would agree.
Here is a chronological list of the series. If you do find you like it, you don’t have to read it in order, except do not read A Family Affair until you have read them all. It has a plot twist unlike any other in the series and you don’t want to ruin it.
When I was in college, I majored in English and took a course called “Detective Film and Fiction”. Yes, it was a real course, and yes, it was a lot of fun because I was a mystery fan and a film buff.
I was introduced to the world of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin when I was assigned Too Many Cooks, which opens with how Archie feels about getting his employer, Nero Wolfe, onto a train when Wolfe rarely ever leaves his New York City brownstone.
“Walking up and down the platform alongside the train in the Pennsylvania Station, having wiped the sweat from my brow, I lit a cigarette with the feeling that after it had calmed my nerves a little I would be prepared to submit bids for a contract to move the Pyramid of Cheops from Egypt to the top of the Empire State Building with my bare hands, in a swimming suit; after what I had just gone through.”
As William G. Tapply writes in an introductions to The Second Confession, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are paired like “Sherlock Holmes meets Sam Spade”, British whodunit meets hard-boiled detective.
Weighing a seventh of a ton, Nero Wolfe is the brains of the pair, indulging his gourmet tastes as he sits in his custom-made desk chair in his brownstone and solves mysteries
Archie Goodwin is his employee, acting as legman, secretary, bodyguard, and nuisance. As the last, it’s Archie’s job to annoy Wolfe into working because the man has a lazy streak as big as his custom-made chair.
I never liked Wolfe. He may have Holmes’s brains but none of his eccentric appeal. I read the series because Archie’s first-person narration is so engagingly entertaining.
The character I found most intriguing is Saul Panzer, a free-lance P.I. who often works with Archie for Wolfe. We only pick up tidbits about his personal life but those little facts and Archie’s unqualified admiration for his professional skills makes me wish Stout had written at least one book showcasing Saul.
Next time, I will write about what I learned from the series.