The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

Characterization with Sofia Samatar

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August 30, 2016
BASFF SAMATAR forestClicking the illustration to the left will take you to “How to Get Back to the Forest” by Sofia Samatar, in the Mar. 2014 issue of Lightspeed. Clicking the cover will take you to the amazon page for JJA’s first Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy volume, which is where I read the story. 

I highly recommend the Best American. Quite a few of the stories were excellent. 

The Challenge:

Writing compelling characters can be majorly tough. Especially in short fiction, how do you find the room to really bring the character to life while also advancing a plot in some reasonable fashion? 

In a lot of stories, the answer seems to be to shovel exposition at the reader: tell us their whole life story, and pray it feels relevant. Or describe the character in minute detail, or give one key piece of backstory and hope it serves to flesh out the character so that we buy in. 

But those methods never really appealed to me. The former bores. The latter strikes me as reductive. Both hammer the pace until it completely gives in. 

So what’s a writer to do?

The Story:

There’s a lot to this story. A LOT. So much worth looking at. For one, it handles a lot of exposition in a complex way and makes it interesting. Also, it reads so smoothly, despite having really complex syntax and a musical prose quality. 

Also, twisty. At first its seems like this is set in a camp for wayward teens (it isn’t) in a world exactly like ours (it’s not) and that the girls are beginning a journey to heal emotionally and will ultimately lead fulfilling lives (nope). 

But the thing I wanted to talk about most, I found, was characterization.

We are introduced to a bunch of characters and they all felt so physically and emotionally separate and that fascinated me. 


The Solution:

In this story, Samatar seems to use 3 techniques to characterize. Firstly, the “expositional” type I mentioned earlier, although it is used just for one character and has a very gentle touch. Secondly, she offers precise and vivid descriptions of characters, usually invigorated with mood and voice–these are also used sparingly and are provided in sharp, short bursts. Not every character gets these treatments. 

Most of the characters, especially the campers, are characterized in a third way that I would call “reactionary.” 

Perhaps obviously, what I mean by this is that we get a huge glimpse into the characters simply in how they react to a core element of the story: puke. Okay, to spoil the first scene for you a tad: Cee jams a toothbrush down her throat to force herself to puke. Her friends watch on, and Cee encourages them to join her–she offers them her reasoning, although it’s suspect. 

Here are the reactions we get from the characters:

  1. Elle: At first says “Oh my God, that is disgusting.” But then she forces herself to puke “all of the sudden” (and with uncommon skill) in the sink beside Cee.
  2. Kate: “We have to stop her!” She grabs Cee and pulls her into a stall, frantically switching between “help me you guys!” and “Ew, ew, ew.”
  3. Max: “She’d believe anything”–Max responds at first with curiosity, and then with disbelief and disgust, screaming. Eventually, while trying to help Kate end this insanity, she gets so disgusted that she also pukes.
  4. Tisha (the narrator): The story is in first person, so we get a lot of her reaction. The key thing is “God, Cee. You were such an idiot.” But also, she starts laughing, apparently because she’s dizzy and afraid she’ll puke too. Then, of course, she gets so disgusted that she involuntarily pukes.
  5. Cee: When Elle begins puking, she nods her approval and says, “Good job, Elle!”
  6. 5 or 6 “other girls”: Many of these girls laugh at Katie’s antics trying to pull Cee into a stall, and say various things such as “Are you nuts?” and “Oh my God” and clutched each other. 
This isn’t the only episode of reactionary characterization we get in the story, but this one I think is the most useful and deals with more of the characters than the handful of others. 

Do you, reading this out of context, get as powerful a sense of these characters as I did? 

Two things that I think make this really genius-level material: 
  1. It’s puke. Even though the world she’s building is a little strange, just about any reader knows how they feel about puke and will probably have a visceral reaction. So this scene, these reactions, create a range that we can place our own reactions in. It’s a perfect barometer that allows us to compare ourselves to the other characters, almost getting to know them through analogy. 
  2. The “5 or 6 other girls” shows us what “normal” is in this world, which may be up for debate. It gives us a sort of control group to which we can gauge our own reactions and the reactions of the other characters. How does Max’s reaction reveal her idiosyncratic personality compared with the vaguer reactions of the other characters?
Finally:

One way to characterize (even in a strange world) is to create an event that readers can understand and allow the central characters to have specific reactions to them across a wide range. Spend time brainstorming a list of possible reactions.

But also, especially if the situation is strange, or the world is different than ours, make sure there is a control group that can show us “normal.”

Not only does this allow us to understand the characters better, it can allow us to engage further with the story, because we have to place ourselves on the scale. 

Thanks for reading! Do you agree? Disagree? If  you have any other strong examples of reactionary characterization, I’d love to hear about them. 

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