Elements of Literature character: Living Many Lives by John Leggett The Human Experience

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Elements of Literature

CHARACTER: Living Many Lives by John Leggett

The Human Experience

Most people are fascinated by human nature. They like to know how other people respond to problems, disappointments, and temptations. A good story, whether it's true, made up, or somewhere in between, reveals some truth about the human experience. It does this through the people who live in its pages-its characters.

A well-drawn character comes alive in the reader's mind. When you read a story, you may find yourself thinking that the main character is very much like you or someone you know-or you may wish you could be more like the character. As you read, the characters in the story become your friends or your enemies. You may even lose yourself in a story and begin to think and feel as if you were in a character's shoes.

Some characters become the acquaintances of generations of readers. You may have met famous characters in books that your parents or even your grandparents also loved.

Creating Characters

Creating characters is an important but difficult part of writing. Writers create brand-new people to populate the world portrayed in a story.

How does a writer bring a character to life? First, the writer must be able to imagine the character. He or she may start by picturing the character's appearance, picking colors for the hair and the eyes, and adding a voice and a style of dress. The writer must also invent a whole personality. The character may be snobbish or heroic or happy-go-lucky, or have a mixture of personality traits. The writer must choose from an enormous number of possibilities while trying to put together a believable character.

Sometimes writers are surprised by the way their characters turn out. Some writers say that their characters just seem to create themselves as a story is being written.

A Writer on Character

"Sitting at my typewriter, I have lived many lives. I have been Jerry Renault refusing to sell those chocolates and Kate Forrester trying to start that hostaged bus and Adam Farmer pedaling his bicycle toward an unknown destination. I have both laughed and wept while sitting there."

-Robert Cormier, author of "The Moustache" (page 139)

Characterization: The Breath of Life

The way a writer reveals character is called characterization. Poor characterization can make a description of even a real person seem flat and unconvincing. Good characterization can make readers feel that the most unlikely characters-an enormous talking egg, a bumbling teddy bear-live and breathe.


Show, Don't Tell

"Don't say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”

-Mark Twain

A writer may simply tell us directly that a character is mean-tempered or thrifty or brave or honest. This kind of characterization, called direct characterization, was often used by writers before the twentieth century. Present-day writers generally prefer to show their characters in action and let readers decide for themselves what kinds of people they are meeting. This method is called indirect characterization.

Methods of Characterization

Writers use several methods to reveal what a character is like.


I. Stating directly what the character is like:

Sergeant Randolph was the cruelest drillmaster in the regiment.


2. Describing the appearance of the character:

The woman's coat was gathered about her thin body and fastened with a safety pin.

3. Showing the character in action:

Toni glanced around, then tossed her gum wrapper on the grass and kept walking.

4. Allowing the reader to hear the character speak:

"I don't have to do what you say," declared Darlene, glaring at the new baby sitter.

5. Revealing the character's thoughts and feelings:

Tyler didn’t like the looks of the squash pudding but decided to eat some to please the cook.

6. Showing how others react to the character:

Team up with Erica?" said Jorge. "Well, OK, if you can't get anyone else. But when she was my partner before, I did all the work while she socialized."

Characters Who Change

The main character in a story almost always undergoes a significant change in the course of the story. A character who changes in this way is known as a dynamic character. (A character who doesn't change much is called a static character.) A dynamic character may grow in some way, gain in understanding, make an important decision, or take a crucial action.


Before You Read



Make the Connection


What do you know about the word legacy? Using a dictionary if necessary, brainstorm with two or three classmates in response to the questions below.


Who might leave a legacy?

How might someone feel about receiving a legacy?

What are examples of legacies? (Does a legacy have to be something you can see?)

Elements of Literature


Read aloud "The Courage That My Mother Had:' and you'll hear a regular rhythm that sounds like poetry. Read aloud "Legacy II," in contrast, and you'll hear the natural rhythms of ordinary speech. How do you know, in each poem, when to pause when you read aloud?

Rhythm is a rise and fall of the voice produced by repeated sound patterns.

For more on Rhythm, see pages 544-545 and the Handbook of Literary Terms.
The Courage That My Mother Had

Edna St. Vincent Millay
The courage that my mother had

Went with her, and is with her still:

Rock from New England quarried;°

Now granite in a granite hill.
The golden brooch° my mother wore

She left behind for me to wear;

I have no thing I treasure more:

Yet, it is something I could spare.
Oh, if instead she’d left to me

The thing she took into the grave!-

That courage like a rock, which she

Has no more need of, and I have.

3. quarried: dug from a quarry, a pit from which building stone or marble is taken.

5. brooch: large decorative pin, usually worn at the neck.


Spanish Octogenarian by E. Martin Hennings. Oil on canvas.

Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas.

Legacy II

Leroy V. Quintana

Grandfather never went to school

spoke only a few words of English
a quiet man; when he talked

talked about simple things

planting corn or about the weather

sometimes about herding sheep as a child
One day pointed to the four directions

taught me their names

El Norte

El Sur


He spoke their names as if they were

one of only a handful of things

a man needed to know
Now I look back

only two generations removed

realize I am nothing but a poor fool

who went to college
trying to find my way back

to the center of the world

where Grandfather stood that day



Family Ties

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) was born and grew up in Rockland, Maine. She started writing poetry as a child. Millay wrote "Renascence", one of her most famous poems, when she was only nineteen, and published her first book of poetry the year she graduated from Vassar College.

As you might have guessed from "The Courage That My Mother Had:' the strength of women is an important theme in Millay's writing. Millay worshiped her mother, a strong New Englander who worked as a practical nurse to support her three daughters after their father deserted the family.

Leroy V. Quintana (1944- ) was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and raised by his grandparents. Many of his poems contrast his Mexican ancestors' traditional way of life with the way people live in big cities today. "In many ways I'm still basically a small-town New Mexico boy carrying on the oral tradition," he says.

I heard Grandmother tell me the old stories hundreds of times, over and over. To me it was like turning on the TV. She had the nuances of language, though she had no education; she knew the inflections, how to tell the story, how to keep you in suspense. You know, that seems to be lost, and I would hope that I could at least put a little bit of that on paper.”

"Legacy II" builds on the theme of another poem by Quintana, "A Legacy," about an educated man who longs to return to the time when his grandfather told him cuentos, Mexican American folk tales.



First Thoughts

I. Which poem do you like better? Why? Consider the feelings and ideas
expressed by the speakers and the rhythm you feel in each poem.

Shaping Interpretations

2. What legacy did the speaker of each poem receive? What legacy does each speaker want instead?

3. What does Millay compare her mother's courage to? What does her comparison suggest to you about the nature of courage?

4. What do you think the speaker of "Legacy II" means when he says that his grandfather stood at the center of the world that day (lines 20-22)?

Extending the Text

5. Review what you wrote about legacies in your Quickwrite. Do you think it's possible for qualities like courage and wisdom to be handed down as legacies? Why or why not?

CHOICES: Building Your Portfolio

Writer's Notebook

1. Collecting Ideas for a Persuasive Essay

Refer to your Quickwrite notes, and respond to one of these statements:

The most important legacies are those that can't be seen.

Anyone-young or old, rich or poor-can leave a legacy.

Write down supporting evidence for your position. Be sure to think about the two poems you've just read.

Creative Writing

2. Thanks a Million

Think of a gift someone gave you that was not an object-perhaps knowledge, love, or just attention when you needed someone to listen. Write a thank-you note explaining what the gift meant to you.

World Languages

3. Make It Concrete

In a concrete poem the arrangement of the words on the page reflects their meaning, the way the placement of the Spanish words for the four directions in "Legacy II" indicates what the words mean.

Write a concrete poem designed to teach a word or a group of words in a language you know (it can be English) to speakers of other languages.


Before You Read


Make the Connection

Little Things Mean a Lot

Sometimes it's surprising what people remember from their childhood. When the poet Robert P. Tristram Coffin was a little boy, his father came to check on him one night as he lay sick in bed. This simple expression of love meant so much to Coffin that many years later he wrote a poem about it-"The Secret Heart."


Describe a happy memory from your childhood. Who was there? What happened? Why was it important to you?

Elements of Literature


As you read this poem, ask yourself: What does the "secret heart" symbolize (represent) for the son?

A symbol is a person, a place, or a thing that has meaning in itself but that stands for something else as well.

For more on Symbol, see page 42 and the Handbook of Literary Terms.

The Secret Heart

Robert P. Tristram Coffin

Across the years he could recall

His father one way best of all.
In the stillest hour of night

The boy awakened to a light.
Half in dreams, he saw his sire°

With his great hands full of fire.
The man had struck a match to see

If his son slept peacefully.
He held his palms each side the spark

His love had kindled in the dark.
His two hands were curved apart

In the semblance° of a heart.
He wore, it seemed to his small son,

A bare heart on his hidden one,
15 A heart that gave out such a glow

No son awake could bear to know.
It showed a look upon a face

Too tender for the day to trace.
One instant, it lit all about,

And then the secret heart went out.
But it shone long enough for one

To know that hands held up the sun.
5. sire: father.

12. semblance: form.



"Saying the Best"

Robert R Tristram Coffin (1892-1955) was born in Brunswick, Maine, and called himself "a New Englander by birth, by bringing up, by spirit." Coffin enjoyed growing up in rural Maine so much that as an adult he bought the red-brick schoolhouse he'd attended, to preserve it in honor of his childhood. (Can you imagine buying your school in thirty years?)

Coffin was an artist as well as a writer and often drew the jacket designs and illustrations for his books. He won a Pulitzer Prize for a book of poetry called Strange Holiness (1935). He once said:

Poetry is saying the best one can about life.”

The Fire in Time (1993) by Jim Dine. Charcoal, enamel, and watercolor on paper (3 I I/2" x 23").



First Thoughts

I. In your opinion, what is the most important word or phrase in the poem? Explain your choice.

Shaping Interpretations

2. What does the boy realize about his father? How does he come to this realization?

3. What do the father's hands holding the match symbolize for the son?

4. What do you think is the meaning of the last two lines, in which the son realizes that "hands held up the sun"? Whose hands are they?

5. How does the expression "Little things mean a lot" relate to this poem? Does the expression also relate to the memory you described in your Quickwrite? Explain.

Connecting with the Text

6. The speaker says that the father's love was "too tender for the day to trace." Why do people sometimes hide their feelings from those they love?

CHOICES: Building Your Portfolio

Writer's Notebook

1. Collecting Ideas for a Persuasive Essay

The event described in "The Secret Heart" helps a boy know how much his father loves him. What "little things" can people do for one another to show that they care? What do children need most from their families? Freewrite your responses to these issues.

Creative Writing

2. Memory Lane

Write a poem about a memory of a special person. If you would like to write a poem with a regular pattern of rhyme and rhythm, like "The Secret Heart," you might start:

Across the years I can recall

________best of all.


3. Sound and Sense

With two or three classmates, prepare a choral reading of "The Secret Heart." Practice reading it aloud so that it doesn't sound singsong. Pay attention to the punctuation at the ends of lines. If there's no punctuation mark, read on without pausing; come to a full stop only when you get to a period. You may want to try reciting the poem from memory.


Before You Read



Make the Connection

Hopes and Dreams

"I want my children to have everything I missed?' Have you ever heard an adult say something like this?

In "A Smart Cookie" a mother talks about her missed opportunities in hopes that her daughter, Esperanza, will have a better future. (Esperanza, in fact, means "hope" in Spanish.)


Write briefly about someone's hopes for you or your own hopes for your future.

Background/ Elements of Literature

Literature and World Languages

"A Smart Cookie" appears here both in English, the language in which Sandra Cisneros writes, and in Spanish, her parents' language.

When Elena Poniatowska translated the story into Spanish, the title posed a special problem because it is an idiom, an expression that has a nonliteral meaning unique to a particular language. Do you know what the expression smart cookie means?

Poniatowska could have simply used the Spanish words for smart and cookie, but in Spanish the phrase would just mean "intelligent pastry." To a Spanish speaker it would make no sense. She chose instead to change the title to "Bien aguila" ("good eagle"), a Spanish idiom whose meaning is similar to that of smart cookie in English.

An idiom is an expression peculiar to a particular language. An idiom means something different from the literal meaning of each word.

For more on Idiom, see the Handbook of Literary Terms.


A Smart Cookie

Sandra Cisneros

I could've been somebody, you know? my mother says and sighs. She has lived in this city her whole life. She can speak two languages. She can sing an opera. She knows how to fix a TV But she doesn't know which s b-way train to take to get downtown. I hold her hand very tight while we wait for the right train to arrive.

She used to draw when she had time. Now she draws with a needle and thread, little knotted rosebuds, tulips made of silk thread. So e-day she would like to go to the ballet. Someday she would like to see a play. She borrows opera records from the public library and sings with velvety lungs powerful as morning glories.

Today while cooking oatmeal she is Madame Butterfly1 until she sighs and points he wooden spoon at me. I could've been somebody, you know? Esperanza, you go to school. Study hard. That Madame Butterfly was a fool. She stirs the oatmeal. Look at my comadres.2 She means Izaura whose husband left and Yolanda whose husband is dead. Got to take care all your own, .he says shaking her head.

Then out of nowhere:

Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You wan to know why I quit school? Because I didn't have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains.

Yup, she says disgusted, stirring again. I was a smart cookie then.

1. Madame Butterfly: tragic heroine of an opera of the same name by Giacomo Puccini. In the opera a U.S. naval officer stationed in Japan marries a young Japanese woman, Butterfly, then returns to the United States. She waits faithfully for him, wit their child, for years. After he returns to Japan with an American wife, Butterfly commits suicide.

2. comadres: Spanish for "close female friends" (literally, a child's mother and godmother).

Mercy (detail) (1992) by Nick Quijano.

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