STEPPING A CHARACTER
As writers we are always looking for ways to write faster, more focused, and more detailed. I recently attended a workshop where I learned the craft of stepping a character from Nancy Masters. This prepares me to write a scene for the novel I’m writing set in India, which gives me focus and details, and in turns helps me write faster. Let me share in this post my process of stepping a character, then drafting the scene.
Next week I will share the suggestions I receive from my writing group and revisions I make as a result of their recommendations.
THE PROCESS OF STEPPING A CHARACTER
- Three things the reader see when approaching the scene, in this case the street: an open-air merchant, storefronts, animals
- Three things the main character is wearing: hat, boots, and kerchief
- Three things she is carrying: her brother Will’s compass, a pouch of rupees, and a hat
- Three things she sees in route
- People = pilgrim pulling on silver hookah, pauper with leather amulet pouch, priest teaching scripture, merchants (tobacco, sweetmeats, and horse traders)
- Languages on store fronts = Hindustani, Hindi, Urdu
- Styles of smoking = hookah, snuff gourds, snuff pouches
- Three things she says or comments on: I’m obviously a foreigner; a variety of smoking instruments; and different languages
- Three smells experienced the streets: manure, sweat, rotten food, aroma from bong
- A secret Fiona (main character) holds: wishes she were with her brother Will: and a secret Pastor John (secondary character) holds: hopes Fiona will consider being his wife before she leaves India
Pastor John led the way out Ramita’s front garden, leaving the sweet smells of Ramita’s garden flowers. John opened the gate for her to the street and the offensive odors that would come. He stepped behind her and then to the street side of the path. When they spent time alone, John reminded her with his chivalry that he was courting her.
Usually awkward and uncertain about how to behave around this attentive man of God, Fiona attempted to make casual conversation. An innate curiosity helped. “I see different kinds of lettering above the shop doors. At first I thought them all the same, but with a few days of observing them, I think they are different languages.”
“You have a keen eye.” He points to a small sweetmeats shop front and said, “That is run by a Moslem. The lettering is Urdu, one of several major languages, not to mention all the distinct dialects spoken in India. Urdu is the language of Islam.”
Fiona tried the word on her tongue to see how it felt, “Ur-du. Right? That sounds silly.”
He pointed to a tobacco shop across the street and said, “Now see that smoke shop over there? That is run by a Hindu, because that lettering is Hindi. I learned in language school before getting to the city, that Hindustani is the mother language of Urdu and Hindi.
“Ironically though, Urdu is written from right to left; and Hindi, from left to right, like we write. Hindi takes many words and expressions from the Sanskrit and Urdu more from Persian.”
“It looks nothing like our alphabet. How many letters does it have?”
“Over thirty consonants and at least twenty vowels in Urdu. Then about twenty-eight consonants and thirty-five vowels in Hindi. Of course, then there are exceptions and combination of these, much like we have the “o-y” and the “o-i” sounds for joy and voice. The written script is different in the two tongues. But if you speak one, you understand the other when spoken.”
“Those things don’t make sense to me. They seem…”
“Yes, even paradoxical. Do you speak either?”
“I studied Hindi, but can’t say I’m fluent; I stumble along if a native speaker is patient.”
They stepped prudently around a Brahmin cow lazily chewing its cud and ignoring them at the top of the ghat, man-built stone steps from the upper street level down to the river on their left. The wide passageway with a stairway led to the Ganges or in this case the Hooghly, a diversion from the mother of all rivers in India. Women washed clothes, locals and pilgrims bathed before prayer time, as always.
“I am so tall and so white; I feel such a foreigner, like a salad at a bake sale.”
“Pardesi, Hindi for foreigner. Actually, there is no such thing as an Indian race here.”
Fiona cocked her head, puzzled. “But they are all dark skinned.”
“Yes, more than you and me, but the range of color is golden to mahogany to black. The Aryans are fair-skinned, more like us; while the Dravidians are Negroid typed.” He saw her perplexed face. “It is believed that Dravidians from the South invaded the North and then integrated, marrying lighter-skinned Aryans; all the while making a variety of skin tones.
“And those two strains of people have inter-married with Mongolians from north of India. When you take into account all these factors, you will see why Indian complexions vary widely.
“I suppose the tropical sun deepens the skin tone, as well.”
Fiona relaxed as she learned more about the infinite mixtures of people. Then she encountered an aroma that she had not smelled before. She asked, “What is that different scent from the other usual ones? I see men smoking pipes and dipping snuff from gourds or pouches, but this scent is unfamiliar.”
He pointed to an old gentleman pulling a long drag from an elaborate silver hookah. The device, elegant and expensive, sat in stark contrast to the man with tattered clothes and only an amulet pouch on his belt. The turbaned man, eyes closed, sucked on a tube from the instrument.
John said, “That’s called a hookah or a smoking machine used for opium.”
Fiona still confounded said, “Hook-ah, you call it. What is opium, like tobacco?”
“Similar, but more potent. Historically it may have been used by priests and healers to produce effects that made them seem like men with special powers. Today it’s used by pilgrims and priests to attain a meditative state. He seems to be meditating. In addition to its prevailing use as anesthesia and a pain-killer, medicine uses it to treat respiratory and stomach ailments.”
“And this man here? Why do you think he is using it?”
“He might say he’s trying to get closer to God. I would say there is only one way to God. Through Jesus Christ. Prayer also helps.” He chuckled and then sobered.
Fiona fiddled with the compass in her pocket that she found after thinking she had lost it. The compass had been Will’s favorite gift ever from Uncle Louis. When he lay dying he left it with her to help her find her way in the world. He knew she might need it in India.
The compass reminded her how much she had wanted to make this trip with Will. It was not the same without him. His death left her vulnerable to the sailors aboard ship, alone to negotiate quarantine and the sale, as well as the changed arrangements in India. Not only had her circumstances change, so had Pastor John’s, due to his wife’s recent death. Instead of staying with the pastor’s family, she boarded with Ramita, which had turned a benefit. The compass provided the only certainty she had about anything right. North was always north – the compass said so.
YOUR TAKE ON THIS SCENE?
Though I did not use all the items I listed in the stepping the character process, you can see it gave me plenty of ideas to work into a scene. The scene in turn provides interesting details of time and place; as well as, cultural and historical information. It builds the rapport between the two characters through dialogue and actions they take toward each other. Practice this process to see if it is as helpful to you as it has been for me.
Let us know how it works for you. We can all learn from and with each other.