Friday, September 16, 2011

Give characters life a few words at a time

Evan S. Connell’s 1959 novel, Mrs. Bridge, is a characterization textbook for writers of all experience levels. Throughout the book, Connell focuses on the title character’s relationships with family and friends as well as her reluctance to achieve personal growth. The reader witnesses Mrs. Bridge attempt to present a public image that doesn’t draw attention towards herself and her family. At times, the reader glimpses her genuine emotion and concern.

What makes Connell’s character study so impressive is that he explores the Mrs. Bridge character using short vignettes. Many of the book’s chapters could be what we call today flash fiction. But in the late 1950’s Connell showed a mastery of the form, proving less could sometimes be more.

There are several things writer’s can learn from reading this book:

-how to give evidence to support character traits

-how to show and not tell

-how to effectively build a character in a small amount of space

-how to set up subplots as consequences of character behavior

-how to plant seeds using character traits that ultimately reveal a major truth about the character

Below is a brief analysis of the first five vignettes—or chapters—and the structure of Mrs. Bridge:

1. The first sentence in the book reveals the desire for a normalcy so extreme that the attention of others is never drawn—“Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it.” India is a name people might ask about. “Where did it come from? What does it mean?” It’s not a name like Jane or Susan, so common nobody bats an eye. And in Mrs. Bridge’s world you should never draw attention to yourself. Connell shows the reader s this in the very first sentence. And for the remainder of the book when the narrator refers to her it is by Mrs. Bridge.

Mrs. Bridge considered not getting married, a thought that concerned her parents. This key fact is quickly told in the vignette’s second paragraph—“Now and then while she was growing up the idea came to her that she could get along very nicely without a husband, and, to the distress of her mother and father, this idea prevailed for a number of years after her education had been completed.” This sentence suggests the role her parents played in shaping Mrs. Bridge’s attitude. It also foreshadows her own attempts at shaping her children and her frustrations when they prove to be individuals.

2. When Mrs. Bridge gives birth to her first child her first thought is “Is she normal?” The second vignette strengthens the character’s desire for a homogenized existence. A plan to have no more than three children is revealed at section two’s end because “there would be no sense in continuing what would soon become amusing to other people.” This anecdote reinforces the character’s fear of becoming fodder for gossip.

3. The third vignette begins with “She brought up her children very much as she herself had been brought up, and she hoped that when they were spoken of it would be in connection with their nice manners, their pleasant dispositions, and their cleanliness, for these were qualities she valued above all others.” Here we get what amounts to Mrs. Bridge’s mission statement—what she believes she is working towards, or perhaps justifications for her repressed lifestyle. But what’s important in this section is the anecdote at the end. While at the neighborhood pool, Ruth, the oldest child, strips out of her bathing suit. When Mrs. Bridge notices her daughter’s nudity she begins chasing the child, trying to catch her and rectify the situation. At first Ruth thinks this is a game but by the end she is “screaming hysterically.” This is a moment that echoes throughout the book. We see a similar situation with Douglas when he decides to build a tower in an empty lot—that desire not to be seen in the public eye in any fashion other than normal. We also get our first glimpse at Mrs. Bridge’s uncomfortable and prudish nature when it comes to issues of sex. And finally, we can trace Ruth’s story arc to this moment as being the point where Mrs. Bridge loses her daughter’s love.

4. The next two vignette’s focus on the issue of the haves and the have-nots. The first moment centers around a breakfast discussion where Bridge tells her second child, who announces she is tired of marmalade, that some children aren’t fortunate enough to have marmalade. In the next chapter, Bridge adopts a poor family at Christmas time, buying gifts for them. These are seeds that pay off in chapter 51. In the early vignettes, Mrs. Bridge’s desire to help the needy could be seen as false, her actions an attempt to raise her standing in the community. But remember, Mrs. Bridge is a character who doesn’t want attention directed towards her, and helping the needy to showcase her goodwill could get people thinking, talking, and questioning the her agenda in a manner she doesn’t want. But in chapter 51, when a man she knows shows up trying to sell magazine subscriptions—and showing an ineptness in his salesmanship—Bridge suspects he hasn’t sold a single subscription. When he confirms this, she becomes his first paying customer. It’s perhaps the first real moment we as readers see enacted by Bridge. We see that underneath her insecurities she is very caring. She really does want the best for people. She just can’t fight through the many protective barriers she has built—or others have built for her—throughout her life.

5. Finally, why vignettes? Think of each vignette as a moment of Bridge’s life she wouldn’t want others to know about. In each section we see her façade breached. If we were only privy to the performances Mrs. Bridge presents, this would be a very boring book. But we see her with her guard down. We see her at her fakest. We see her when she is a real person. We see what she spends her life trying to hide. It’s a strong strategy to build a complex character trying so hard to be one-dimensional and an example of form playing to characterization.

A writing exercise: Write five 750 word-vignettes that reveal a different character trait in each one. In the fifth vignette, try to take one of the traits and turn reader expectations in an attempt to reveal a truth about the character.

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