We’ve heard it to the point of numbness: “Get people into your stories. Tell it in human terms.”
Who’s to argue? Yup, human beings are more interesting than paper creeping through a bureaucracy. Yup, real human experiences bring abstractions to life. Yup, readers are endlessly fascinated with the peccadilloes of their fellows.
So we all agree. So what? We still don’t have many people in our stories.
All too often, all we have are ghosts.
We may think of them as people, but they’re actually thin, transparent images that shimmer faintly in the air. These insubstantial bits of plasma barely obscure the usual view of abstract issues and bureaucratic machinery. They are, to resurrect a quaint 19th-century term, mere shades, ghostly shadows that reveal only the faintest outline of a complete human being.
Pick almost any story from the paper. Chances are it’s between 10 and 20 inches long. Most are. Chances are it refers to one or more human beings. Most do. Chances are it contains a half-dozen or so quotations. That’s the formula.
But those few quotes are all the humanity you’re likely to find. Disembodied voices. A few formal pronouncements on the subject of the piece.
Let’s grab a couple of examples from whatever happens to be handy. Here, for example, is a little zoner feature on a family that visited the Soviet Union. It’s 16 inches long. It explains how mother, father and daughter helped operate a Christian camp. “Most of these kids were from registered Baptist churches,” says the daughter. “They were thrilled to have Americans stay with them,” says the mother. The father says nothing, although the story provides his age and an outline of his professional history.
Here’s a sports advance, a little feature on two skaters scheduled to perform with the Oregon Symphony. We quote the skaters six times in the 18-inch story. “I support myself by waitressing,” says the female half of the pair. “They said the tempo would be slightly different,” says the male half. We also know that the woman is 31 and the man is 25. That’s about it. The description is so minimal that we can’t tell whether the writer actually met the two athletes or merely talked to them on the telephone.
So where are the people in these stories?
Nothing’s actually wrong with either piece, of course. They both take a standard approach to the short newspaper feature. Neither pretends to be a full-fledged profile. Neither suggests that the personality of the newsmakers is the main point. They make good examples because they are typical, not because they are different. They’re the kind of thing any of us who produce newspaper copy might write.
And most of us have.
But stop for a minute. Think about the people you know. Think, especially, about the ones you know really well. Examine the bits and pieces that make up the images of them you carry around in your mind. How much would a few comments on some public issue reveal about who they really are? If you called them on the telephone and asked them six questions – and allowed six 25-word answers – how much of the real human being could you shape in your imagination on the basis of that information alone? How much character could you get into a newspaper story?
Contrast the ghosts that populate most of our stories with the flesh-and-blood character a Virginian-Pilot staff writer created on paper when he profiled the $21.4 million winner of the Virginia Lottery. The writer, Greg Raver-Lampman, engages his readers by introducing them to a 49-year-old registered nurse named Charlotte Jones. Then Raver-Lampman, one of Jon Franklin’s former students, gives us the kind of close-up detail that creates true character.
Charlotte L. Jones, we are told, is single, is always on the lookout for a bargain and grabs every freebie she can find. She lives with her sister’s family in a two-bedroom house filled with give-away souvenir mugs, visors and baskets. She drives a 14-year-old VW Rabbit. She’s an inveterate coupon-clipper who, as the writer puts it, lugs her coupons in an accordion file, “craftily cross-indexed.”
Her Rabbit carries a bumper sticker that reads “Happiness is yelling bingo,” and Charlotte plays her favorite game regularly at the Improved Order of Redmen, Tony Tank Tribe No. 149. She has a blue plastic bingo bag, containing magnetic bingo wands, bingo daubers and good-luck charms, including a stuffed Garfield cat. She even remembers her first bingo game, in grade school, and the prize she won in it: “a metal wastebasket with a pedal that opened the lid.”
Charlotte likes to drive to a Delaware truck stop to buy scratch-off lottery tickets, and she always figured that if she won she could take a trip to Alaska. She plays pinball at another truck stop, where she and a pal often cruise through the parking lot so they can see the fancy 18-wheelers. At her sister’s house, the family likes to eat pizza, hot dogs and one of her sister’s specialties, bread topped with cheese and bacon bits and cooked in the toaster oven.
Get the picture?
Human beings are the sum of their values, beliefs, behaviors and possessions. They’re distinctive because they look a certain way, talk a certain way and walk a certain way. We know them only when we start to tap the larger context that defines them. A straight-ahead comment, quoted in absolutely perfect English and devoid of any personal touches, tells us almost nothing at all.
Of course, not every story is a personality profile, and not every personality is relevant to the news. The typical 16-inch story doesn’t allow much space for character development, in any event, and a long digression to describe one of the sources would seem wildly out of place.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t do a better job of bringing people to life in our stories, regardless of length or subject matter. Often just a passing reference will create an image in the reader’s mind, helping replace a distant quote factory with a real character.
Probably the most effective quick hits on character deal with how a person looks. Appearance is the gateway to character, and you can surmise whole lives from a quick glance at someone passing on a busy street. Novelists often describe their main characters in excruciating physical detail. Magazine profile writers dwell on certain aspects of appearance as a tool for developing their explanations of what makes interesting personalities tick.
But newspaper writers seem uncomfortable with physical descriptions, which seldom show up in even long stories. Not even Greg Raver-Lampman actually described Charlotte Jones. We never learned whether she was tall or short, fat or thin. We never saw what she wore, or the expression that crossed her face when she learned she was suddenly one of the world’s richest women.
Of course, most major newspaper stories appear with photos of the principals. So some reporters have argued that a text description isn’t necessary. But think about your own reading. It’s the text description that creates the image in your mind, and you often bounce back and forth between a text description and a photo as a way of comparing the two.
Besides, a text description can zero in on distinctive aspects of appearance in ways that a photo can’t. Note how complete a portrait Randy Gragg manages in these few words:
“Grenon is a huge – yet hugely gentle – man who looks like a cross between a biker and a nose tackle for the Chicago Bears.
“On one wrist, he wears a giant silver bracelet, held in place by an industrial-strength clasp from a hardware store. On one finger rests a ring the size of a small dinner plate. A tiny earring provides counterpoint to the trademark leather jacket and grease-stained jeans.”
A wire-service description of Dr. Oliver Sacks, the absent-minded social misfit portrayed in “Awakenings,” was even more economical. The reporter, noting that Sacks had been laid off at his old hospital, followed the bumbling physician as he “rumbled into his old clinic … long, blue shirttails hanging untucked,” wearing “giant sandals” and a “black tie still loosened to the chest and dangling far to one side.”
When combined with a quote, a quick bit of physical description helps create a mental image of the speaker, which makes the spoken words far more meaningful. A victim of sex abuse is “a chubby girl in gray athletic sweats” who lights a cigarette as she describes how it happened. A woman who speaks to students about black pride is “tall, proud, sensuous” as she dominates the stage. And a tough cop is a “5-foot-9, 200-pound bearded undercover narcotics officer who races cars to relax.”
If we all went naked and lived in caves, what we said and how we looked would be about the only hints to our character. But we live in one of the world’s greatest consumer societies. So what we own sometimes says as much – or more – about us.
Tom Wolfe has made a career out of carefully observing the things we wear, drive and fill our houses with. It’s his way of explaining our social structure. We use things, he says, as symbols of where and how we fit into society, our place in the pecking order. He calls such things “status indicators,” and he wryly refers to the social structure they help create as the “statusphere.”
For group animals like us, the statusphere is endlessly fascinating. At one time, fitting into the group meant the difference between surviving or dropping out of the gene pool. So we’re extremely sensitive to the most subtle status indicators. Two American high school students might look identical to a Russian tourist. But a fellow high schooler could instantly classify one as a neo-hippie and the other as a Nordstrom’s preppie. That classification, in turn, would lead the savvy observer to all sorts of conclusions about values, attitudes and behavior.
That’s why status indicators are keys to character. They reveal how we see ourselves and the image we try to project. So they tap our deeper sense of self.
When Michelle Trappen portrayed a lonely rancher who found a wife through a group called Singles in Agriculture, she brought Drake Dixon to life with a barrage of status indicators. Dixon, who was married in his Levi’s, survived for years with a nightly dinner of a hamburger patty, instant hashed potatoes and green beans. His best friend was his black Labrador, Cole. When his new wife framed the wedding certificate, she backed it with an old issue of Cattleman’s Monthly.
Other stories enrich characters with passing reference to key status indicators. A Jan Filips story that mentioned a student in a Catholic school noted his salt-and-pepper corduroy pants and navy blue sweater. A Dee Lane story on Dominion Capital mentioned that one executive in the company owned a Street of Dreams home in West Linn and that his six cars occupied a garage bigger than some of the company’s Northeast Portland houses. And a wire service story on James Baker observed that just as the conservative, take-no-chances secretary of state “keeps his suit jacket buttoned over his tailored shirts with the JAB III monogram, so he plows through foreign-affairs homework each night, determined never to be caught unprepared.”
However you do it, characterization lets a bit of humanity shine through. That’s what getting people into stories is really all about.
Peter Carlin’s magazine profile of Jim Bosley, for example, started right out with Bosley the human being. Carlin began by portraying Bosley in his office, pacing back and forth, showing obvious discomfort and protesting that he didn’t want to be in the newspaper. “I don’t know why I said I’d do this,” he fretted. But do it he did, revealing a wealth of intimate information that brought him to life on the page.
That was a full-fledged profile, of course, and Carlin had room to stretch. But humanity can come through in daily news stories, too. John Snell caught the emotions of a witness in the Dayton Leroy Rogers trial – a woman Rogers stabbed 17 years earlier – when he described her as gasping for breath and choking back tears. Some members of the jury, Snell revealed, responded by crying, too. What the witness did, apparently, made as much an impression as what she said.
And, in fact, what we do when we speak does color what we say. A quotation is much richer if it carries some context, some hint of the human actions that accompanied the speech. Carlin quoted Bosley’s claim that “the diet is working, and I’m salt-free.” Then, Carlin revealed, Bosley smiled and raised his eyebrows. “Well, I cheat a little,” he confessed.
Just a word or three allowing readers to see the quotation spoken or hear the quality of a human voice can make all the difference. Kristi Turnquist wrote about a former Columbia River Gorge “board-head,” banished to the workaday world, watching wind-surfers skim across the water. “‘This is what a classic gorge day is all about,’ she said, her voice warm and dreamy.”
Holley Gilbert described a drug addict taking a stand during a counseling session. “‘I’m tired of being the one who’s always wrong,’ she said as she crossed her arms.”
Don Hamilton captured the nonverbal side of a campaign exchange between Barbara Bush and Mark Hatfield. The gestures and expressions changed the entire meaning of the conversation:
“Mark is not George’s friend because of his voting record in the Senate,” she said, turning slowly to Hatfield in mock disapproval. Hatfield winced and squirmed in his seat, grinning broadly as the first lady sternly stared at him.
And notice how a completely unexpected side of Katherine Hepburn comes through in this passage, which appeared in a wire service profile:
“It was a short break but long enough for noticing two small paintings on a far wall. One, in Impressionist style, is of a woman with a parasol on a beach. The other is a brightly colored Matisse-like bowl of fruit. Asked about them, she says in a voice much quieter and meeker than usual. ‘I did those.’ She points to a larger, more folksy canvas of gulls on a rock. ‘I did that one, too.'”
A speaker’s tone isn’t the only thing that reveals character. The vocabulary, the syntax, the person’s own approach to grammar and usage … they all help produce a package that reflects each speaker’s unique character.
Portland Trail Blazer Jerome Kersey let down his guard for a moment and revealed worlds about his attitude when he abruptly dismissed the possibility that he might play for his country’s Olympic basketball team. “Eighty-two games a year are enough,” he said. “If I want gold, I’ll buy it.”
And a Soviet visitor put our standards of hyper-hygiene in perspective when she was told that many American women wash their hair every day. “Every day?” she said. “Every day?”
Teen-age talk often lays character bare because it’s so distinctive. The vocabulary is always changing, too, which makes it an especially colorful brightener to any story that carries it in its authentic form.
Dana Tims caught that inimitable adolescent flavor when he quoted a matter-of-fact 12-year-old boy who, after a night lost in the woods, greeted his distraught mother with “Yo, Mom. What did you think I was, dead or something?”
Kristi Turnquist tapped the same rich vein of character when she passed along a 15-year-old girl’s enthusiastic reaction to the dress she was scheduled to wear in a benefit fashion show. “This is fresh,” the girl said, fingering the beaded fabric.
Another 15-year-old betrayed the same brand of enthusiasm as he stood on the main drag of Seaside, Ore., and talked about the beach town’s perennial spring-break appeal. “It’s a party, dude,” he told Don Hamilton. “Nothing but a party.”
Most of us recognize such quotes for the character-revealing gems that they are. We grab them and use them, especially when we’re working on a feature. But we’re far less likely to pass along other aspects of the spoken word. As a result, we often walk away from our sources knowing far more about them than our readers ever do.
Distinctive language patterns that depart from standard English are a prime source of that knowledge. But we seldom let readers hear exactly the same words and phrases that we hear in the field. We drain the color from such comments out of fear that using the untarnished original will somehow demean our sources. We clean out the little grammatical glitches, sanitizing all speech so that it blends into one vast, pale middle-American voice.
Not so with John Snell’s story on Westley Allan Dodd’s sentencing. At one point Snell quoted Ray Graves, the man who nabbed Dodd outside a Camas movie theater. “The man don’t deserve to live,” Graves said, trembling. “Not someone who does that to babies. There’s nothing more precious than them little guys.”
Cleaning up that quote would have drained its emotional content, which is the source of its impact. Ditto with this comment from an Oregon State Prison inmate, interviewed by Naomi Kaufman: “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life, be away from my family,” he said. “And I ain’t going to do nothing to get took away from them again, once I get out of here.”
English fractured to that degree doesn’t make much sense in a short, inverted pyramid story that’s primarily concerned with news, not character. But it can be essential to a story that’s primarily concerned with a person. That’s true even if the story is short. Stu Tomlinson produced a 10-inch concert advance on a John Lee Hooker performance and included this comment from the legendary bluesman as he talked about his own brand of music: “Since I was a kid it’s been a healing force for me. Since I was 12 years old. The blues done followed me. And I’ll never get out alive.”
“The blues done followed me.” What a wonderful way to put it. The quote carries the same earthy, honest emotion that gives so much character to Hooker’s music.
When character counts, quotes should reveal character.
Carol McCabe, an ASNE national writing award winner from the Providence Journal-Bulletin, owes much of her success to the way she brings her characters to life, and her technique often includes nonstandard English. She makes no apologies for it.
“I feel very strongly that it is condescending to make everyone sound as if they’re speaking Standard English when they are not,” she says. “I think their speech is just as good as any I could make up for them. I’m not trying to make it ungrammatical or make them sound stupid. I’m trying to let the poetry of the life they’ve led, the experiences they’ve had, come out through the rhythms of the speech.
“I think the American language is pure poetry.”
© Jack Hart, 1998