Monday, January 3, 2011

Voices You Should Hear: Bethany Hegedus on Character

What a great way to start off 2011. I'm hosting my sweet friend and talented writer Bethany Hegedus, whose newest novel is Truth With a Capital T (Delacort Books, 2010), a charmer of a book. Here's a brief synopsis of Truth:

Lots of families have secrets. Little-Known Fact: My family has an antebellum house with a locked wing—and I’ve got a secret of my own.

I thought getting kicked out of the Gifted & Talented program—or not being “pegged,” as Mama said—¬was the worst thing that could happen to me. W-r-o-n-g, wrong. I arrived in Tweedle, Georgia, to spend the summer with Granny and Gramps, only to find no sign of them. When they finally showed up, Cousin Isaac was there too, with his trumpet in hand, and I found myself having to pretend to be thrilled about watching my musical family rehearse for the town's Anniversary Spectacular. It was h-a-r-d, hard. Meanwhile, I, Maebelle T.-for-No-Talent Earl, set out to win a blue ribbon with an old family recipe. But what was harder and even more wrong than any of that was breaking into the locked wing of my grandparents’ house, trying to learn the Truth with a capital T about Josiah T. Eberlee, my long-gone-but-not-forgotten relation. To succeed, I couldn't be a solo act. I’d need my new friends, a basset hound named Cotton, the strength of my entire family, and a little help from a secret code.

With grace and humor and a heaping helping of little-known facts, Bethany Hegedus incorporates the passions of the North and the South and bridges the past and the present in this story about one summer in the life of a sassy Southern girl and her trumpet-playing adopted Northern cousin.

Bethany consented to write an excellent guest post on character, clearly her forte:

“Ensemble pieces,” is a phrase that is most heard when discussing acting.  It could be bandied about when seeing a film, a play or even a sitcom such as Modern Family or a dramedy such as Parenthood. Interesting to note, these are both current popular TV ensembles that are based around families—but there are others. What about the cast of Lost, Mary Tyler Moore, Cheers, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. All of these have viewpoint main characters (well, except for Lost but most would say Jack is the MC of the show) and still all are considered ensemble shows. Is this because television is somewhat comparable to series fiction? What about stand-alone works?

Recently, the Happy Nappy Bookseller, blogged about my newest novel, Truth with a Capital T. She wrote: “I liked Maebelle from the start…she could easily carry the story on her own but the author doesn't put it all on Mabelle's shoulders. Hegedus writes a great story, using all the characters she created. The friendship between the five (friends) was one of my favorite parts of the book.” This got me to thinking…hmmmm…did I write an ensemble book? Why, yes, I believe I did.
So how does one write an ensemble book? I am not 100 % sure. I’ve never read about ensemble character development in any of my favorite craft books, but I have some idea why Truth with a Capital T doesn’t rest solely on Maebelle’s shoulders though the book is told in first person and from her pov. Some of the important elements in creating an ensemble piece are:

1.     A likable but flaw-filled main character.
Yes, Maebelle is likable (I hope) and goodness knows she is flawed. The fact that Maebelle has flaws—numerous ones—made her all the more fun to write and I hope all the more fun to read. She is tenacious, jealous, and she jumps to conclusions.  (And, she has a big, big heart as well as a love for little-known-facts.) To overcome her flaws and to learn from them, Maebelle needs to interact with others. She has to butt up against Isaac, her trumpet playing prodigy of a cousin. She needs to not quit when it comes to finding her talent—whether it be baking a blackberry cobbler,  trying to learn a clogging routine, or somehow getting in the locked wing of her grandparent’s newly inherited historic home. And, she needs to face the facts, that acting rash and jumping to conclusions can lead her into trouble, with a capital T.

2.     An over-arching story problem that affects ALL, and not just the main character.
What may or may not be found in the locked wing affects the Hillibrand boys, Ruth, and everyone in the town of Tweedle—not  just Maebelle and Isaac.
Who is Ruby Red? Did Josiah T. Eberlee, Maebelle’s long dead but not forgotten relation, own slaves? What is the truth about the town’s past and how will finding out the answer affect the town’s future.
The over-arching story problem—the mystery that is history—is one that needs to be answered and has implications for all.
Maebelle has the most at stake in finding out the answer but others are involved to.

3.     A unique and well-drawn cast of supporting characters, who have wants and needs of their own.
Issac wants to be accepted and loved. Ruth wants a boyfriend. Jimmy Hillibrand wants to kiss a girl under the Kiss-Me-Quick Bridge before the summer is over and Taylor Hillibrand, the older of the Hillibrand boys, wants to play video games and do pop-a-wheelies.  Together, along with Maebelle these four make up the heart of the ensemble cast. But, there are more characters and they have wants and needs too.
Gramps wants the locked wing to stay locked and everyone to stop digging in his family’s past. Granny wants to know as much as the kids do what is behind the locked door. Cotton, the basset hound, just wants to howl. And, Mr. Phelps, the town librarian and historian wants to know whether or not Oak Alley, the inherited historic home, was or was not a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Ah, and then there are the townspeople of Tweedle, Georgia. They just want to witness one heck of an Anniversary Spectacular.  And what does Maebelle want—some may say she wants to find her talent but she really wants to be appreciated for who and what she is. Perhaps her want is very similar to Isaac, who wants acceptance and love, but it is still slightly different. Maebelle needs to accept herself and Isaac wants the acceptance of others. Isaac’s talents are appreciated by others and Maebelle wants her talents to be seen as valuable too. They are good foils for one another.

4.     The ensemble comes together to act as one.
The Clandestine Cloggers, as Maebelle, Isaac, Jimmy, Taylor and Ruth, come to be known don’t just dance as a group. They act as one. Together they research and record many facts about the town in 1859, the townspeople, and what may or may not have transpired there. What they discover together is what helps Maebelle, as the main character, discover the necessary information for the BIG reveal at the climax.

Creating an ensemble cast of characters isn’t easy but there are reasons why readers may respond to ensemble casts. By the time the reader gets to the novels end, he/she may have identified with any one of a number of characters. As a child, I was as fond of the Cowardly Lion as I was of Dorothy and even though I came to Because of Winn-Dixie as an adult, I am as fond of Gloria Dump as I am of India Opal Buloini. That brings me to another plus of ensemble work. By its very nature, a group dynamic creates a sense of community and by the end of the book, just like the main character, the reader will know he or she is not alone.

I am not sure if it takes a village to raise a child but I am sure it took a village to surround Miss Maebelle and give her the time, tension, and attention she so needed and deserved.

You can find out more about Bethany, Truth, and Bethany's other work at 


Shelli Cornelison said...

Great post! Thanks Janet & Bethany!

Anonymous said...

Super post, ladies! I'm reading The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass and your post is timely. The first two chapters I finished reading deal with creating 3D protagonists, antagonists and secondary characters. Which as we all know aren't really secondary more supporting. Thanks for the great information!

Janet Fox said...

I love this post - even as I struggle with the large ensemble I'm trying to pull together now. Like coordinating a dance troupe ("put your left foot in, pull your left foot out....")

lindsey said...

Ahhh, the brilliance of Bethany. Thank you, Janet, for hosting and posting. This discussion reminds of a blog post I wrote about Stephanie Greene's "Happy Birthday, Sophie Hartley.
What Stephanie did really in her book was use family as setting. We never lost the main character but her world was her family and it was drawn so well around her because it never overwhelmed her.

Janet Fox said...

An excellent point, Lindsey, and "The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate" springs to mind in that regard as well.

Thanks for the link!

Donna said...

Fabulous post, Janet and Bethany!

Ishta Mercurio said...

What a wonderfully informative post! Writing an ensemble novel is a tricky thing - I'll have to revisit this post often as I work on my YA WiP.