Jul 17

Whitewashing Your Characters

Fiction writers whitewash characters when, for example, they base a character on a person whose real name is Rosenstein, but they rename him Stone and erase anything Jewish about him or his family.

I would bet you meet many more Johnsons, Smiths, Thompsons, Robertses, Millers and Joneses in fiction than in real life. Authors do this "ethnic cleansing" hoping to "universalize" the characters or create a "blank slate" supposedly without ethnic or historical baggage. Screenwriters, actors, even toymakers do this too. Mattel's Barbie doll, Barbie Millicent Roberts, dumped her boyfriend Ken Carson for Blaine Gordon. Midge Hadley Sherwood was Barbie's best friend and Francie Fairchild her cousin. Barbie's darker-skinned friends, such as Christie, an African-American, have no surnames. It was a business decision to tiptoe around the issue. All "ethnic" names come with "baggage," it seems. Can't name her Christie Jefferson, or Christie Afolayan or Christie Muhammad. All loaded with baggage! Better no surname at all.

Paging through the short fiction in a recent literary magazine, all of it "realistic" and set in the U.S.A., I found characters named Freeman and Mr. Henry. All the other characters, perhaps 30 in all, had first names only. Yet in reality your surname rules your life. Why such a dearth of surnames? Tension around this issue -- do ethnic names trigger reader prejudice? Do non-Anglo names distract the reader?-- makes it simpler for creators to default to Anglo in name and in being -- or, simplest, to default to no surname at all. This is in tandem with the tendency not to describe or name the story's setting, thinking that's more "universal." (Editors call this "hoboes in space.") As fiction writers gain experience they do this less and less.

Anglo surnames for your characters are not universal or neutral. Simply be aware of that when naming characters. At one time we opened the phone book at random to break ourselves of the "Johnson" and "Thompson" impulse. Today, seek out the surnames of the football-team lineup at the college nearest you. Because of migration and immigration, legal or not, nearly every nation is a nation of immigrants. Is it too much trouble to imagine what traces of Germany might be left in a character who is a fourth-generation American named Hochmuller? And no fair substituting Irish or Scottish names. Not everybody is from the U.K.!

Jun 23

School Can Help You Write a Good Novel

There's a myth that writing a novel is very easy. In Peanuts we saw a dog writing a genre novel. Erase that idea; you are now in the Sanity Bubble. It's novelists, the long-distance runners, who most need education in the craft and the business.

Jul 15

I Can Never Remember What Exposition Is

    Fiction writers at writing workshops often hear, "Get rid of the exposition." "There's too much exposition in here." "Exposition" --it can be good, but in fiction class it was always bad, and I understood the concept from examples, but never had it explained to me in a convenient nutshell.

    As often happens, the word provides its own understanding. Think of the word as "Ex-position." "Ex" means "out." So the word means "out of position." Exposition is a capsule of description or dialogue that doesn't really fit in its time and place, or fit the character. Example:

    "Amanda thinks she's Jane Austen, the famous English writer born in 1775 who wrote Sense and Sensibility and then Pride and Prejudice, and then Northanger Abbey which spoofs the Gothic novels popular at that time. Look, there's Amanda now."

    That's fine information in that first sentence, and all true, but it doesn't belong there. It's out of place.

    Exposition doesn't have to be factual. It can be fictional. It's an authorial intrusion: background information that has been foregrounded in a place in the narrative where it doesn't fit. The author is unsure about a choice he made -- maybe, he thinks, he'd better explain who Jane Austen was so we will all get it! -- so he patches up the narrative with further information, hoping for the best.