The Character Sketch

This is one of three lesson plans that accompany the essay The Advanced Class.

By Naomi Rachel

The Character Sketch assignment was very popular among my students at the Frasier Meadows Retirement Community in Boulder, Co., because we first created an imaginary character together. The point of that exercise was for students to realize how much you need to know about a character before writing. That’s as true with memoir as with fiction. 

If you want to write about real people, you need to think of everything that a fiction writer thinks of when creating a fictional character. Actually, nothing comes from nothing so fictional characters are composites of actual people. Great actors say that they find out far more about their character than is written in the script. Writers are interior actors. When I am creating a character, I like to be in a very private space so I can try speaking and acting as my character before writing him up. I do that for narrative poetry, too. You need to do this to establish your character’s point of view. You need to know a great deal about a person—real or fictional—before you can understand how that person sees the world. 

Agatha Christie claims that you only need a first name, a last name and a profession. That is all. Once you have the right name and a profession, it is easy. 

As a homework assignment, I hand out three different color index cards. I ask students to write a first name on a card of one color, a last name on a card of another color, and a profession on the card of the third card. Then I collect them and sort them by color. Everyone picks one card from each colored pile. Each student should have a random first name, last name a profession. I tell students not to worry about the plot. That will come. 

In class, we create a character and write about that character together. This is how I presented the Character Sketch Assignment: 

Before we get started on character, I want to share a wonderful exercise that comes from Agatha Christie. This is how she created characters, and she always let the characters determine the plot. 

I have done this many times in fiction writing classes and it has always been very successful. Although we are writing memoirs, we are still developing characters because, like fiction writers, we have to elaborate. As we have discussed many times, memories aren’t factual – they are emotional. To recreate the emotions, we often add details that might not be completely factual but that enable our readers to understand the feelings and motivations of the person we are writing about. 

Today we are going to do a collaborative exercise that is similar, and then your homework assignment will relate to developing a character from your own life. 

We are going to create a class character and see what it takes to develop that person. 

I want you to think of a situation that is related to your life. What character in that situation would you like to develop? For example, you could suggest a teacher or perhaps someone struggling with an affliction. We can empathize because we have all experienced fear and affliction in some form. Please don’t pick an exotic profession like an astronaut. I am looking for a situation we can all relate to, even if we have not experienced it firsthand. 

The students come up with a list of characters they would like to write about and then vote on one. Then they all write about the same character. Together, we observe how different the interpretations can be, given the same list of characteristics. 


Student Writing 

Auntie 

By Barbara Farhar 

In 1878, my grandfather, Gustav Sarka, was born in Hungary. He was schooled and apprenticed as a pastry chef. My grandmother, Pauline, born in 1874, came from Slovakia. They had met at a hotel in Budapest where both had worked. After they came through Ellis Island, the young couple lived in Manhattan where they opened a bakery. Their first child, Frances Helen Sarka, was born on June 7, 1906, a first-generation American. Her parents called her “Lutze.” I called her “Auntie.” 

Over time, Lutze became the oldest of three siblings; she had a younger brother August Joseph (called “Gus,” who was born in 1907 and lived to be 96) and a younger sister Cecilia Pauline (called “Cilka,” who was born in 1913 and is now 105 years old). Cecilia is my mother. 

After several years, the family moved to a sizable 5-bedroom stucco home with wood trim in Jackson Heights, in the borough of Queens. The house was on 74th St., just up from Roosevelt Avenue and Broadway where the elevated train ran. Behind the kitchen stood a small garden where my grandmother grew her much beloved herbs, irises, and roses. A garage stood at the driveway’s end. Green hedges rimmed the property. 

The house had a vestibule with white and black tiles on the floor, a bench for storing boots, and an umbrella stand. Coats festooned a tree rack. Stairs ascended from the main hall. French doors led to the living room on one side, and the dining room on the other. Upstairs, there was one bathroom for all five bedrooms, but Auntie’s bedroom had an alcove with a sink in it. That was special. 

Pauline was strict. She raised her three children as she believed a devout Catholic mother should. One of her methods involved the employment of a cat-o’-nine-tails. It made such an impression that, in later years, my Uncle Gus sketched the children running and screaming as their mother wielded the instrument of punishment—an unforgettable scene! 

Raised in a frugal household, my aunt’s frugality exceeded anything we could imagine today. Every scrap was saved—bits of string, cloth, food, and money. Clothing was mended and worn indefinitely. Towels and washcloths were used even as they became rags. Shoes were repaired. Moths would fly out of their wallets when opened. 

During the depression, though, the family was fortunate because they had work. My grandfather continued as a baker—people needed their daily bread, even in a depression. Auntie worked for the City of New York and Uncle Gus worked for the telephone company (“Ma Bell”). 

My grandfather had a great sense of humor. I remember the old-fashioned black stand-up dial telephone with the separate earpiece kept on the dining-room buffet—Havemeyer 4-2371, like a song. He was the one who answered the phone. But a problem developed. A strange woman kept calling every few days thinking it was her butcher, and each time my grandfather explained to her that he was not the butcher, and that she was calling the wrong number. Yet it continued to happen. One day, the telephone rang and my grandfather was ready. He took her order. 

Auntie could be soft-hearted. When I lived in my grandfather’s house, our tabby cat was named “Mitty” because of the “M” on her forehead. When in the city, shopping for food is done every day at the butcher shop, the greengrocer, and the bakery, so everything is fresh. Auntie often did the shopping, dragging along her metal grocery cart. She would buy liver for Mitty. It had to be exactly the right color because if it wasn’t, the cat would turn up its nose and walk away. Auntie was really concerned about getting exactly the right-colored liver for Mitty. I thought, “Huh! That’s interesting.” I could never figure it out. 

Auntie graduated from high school, and became a court stenographer for the City of New York where she worked in the Civil Courts until her retirement at age 55. She knew a lot about the law. “I would never work in the criminal courts,” she told me, with a look of disgust on her face. She would come home from work on the subway at about three in the afternoon with her spiral notebooks filled with shorthand. On a large brown desk in a corner of the living room, she pounded out the verbatim court transcripts every day on a big Royal typewriter. I gazed in awe at her steno books stored on shelves in the cellar—row upon row of them. 

My aunt often wore floral dresses and chunky two-inch heels. I remember that she had wide feet, as does my mother. She was on the tall side (about 5’7”) and a bit stout, so she always wore a corset—those one-piece undergarments with bones and garters—and stockings. She had light brown hair and light brown eyes. I especially remember her raccoon coat, which I ended up with and kept for many years. It had a musty, old New York smell to it. 

Auntie enjoyed a certain status as a single professional woman. She did not do any cooking. She had a circle of girlfriends, and they enjoyed going out to dinner and shows. She loved music and played the piano and sang quite well at family sing-alongs. She was highly intelligent. As I sat on 

the stairs as a child, I remember listening to all the adults talking Hungarian in the dining room after she came home from work. They never taught me any Hungarian words, though. I think it was because they didn’t want me to know what they were saying. 

I thought Auntie was a highly important person in the court. One day she took me to visit her courtroom. Nothing happened in that courtroom until my aunt said it could. If she had to so much as go to the bathroom, everything stopped until she returned. This, I thought, was real power. 

Auntie was very sensitive, though. All day, every day, she was immersed in conflict as part of her job. So she sought peace after hours. She would lie on her bed in her clothes in the afternoon or evening and rest and listen to the radio. She just wanted to be alone. 

When she was young, Auntie was engaged to be married to a man named Frank. But she discovered that Frank expected her to continue working after they were married—she was shocked. She decided that he must not love her very much, so she called off the engagement. In those days, unmarried children lived with their parents for the rest of their lives. Auntie lived at her father’s home until she was 50. After he was widowed and remarried, she moved to an apartment a couple of blocks away. But she thought the landlord was putting moves on her, so she bought an apartment at 35th Avenue and 82nd Street in Jackson Heights, a few more blocks away. Thus, she remained in the same neighborhood her entire life. She attended Mass every day at St. Joan of Arc’s, right around the corner. She went shopping daily within a block or two of her apartment. 

Auntie was a traditionalist. In the late 1970s, I was working in a small private research firm in Boulder as principal investigator of research grants. At about the time my grant funds were running out, I was recruited to join the staff at the Solar Energy Research Institute—newly established in Golden, Colorado—to conduct research on the human dimensions of renewable energy. I wrote my aunt about my new job, and she wrote back: “How can you leave your post?”! (As if it were World War II!) 

Auntie enjoyed children. Although she ultimately had 5 nieces and 3 nephews, I was the only one who had actually lived with her as a child. One of my favorite things in those days was to stand at the front of the first car of the subway, next to the conductor’s compartment. I could see out the front window and watch the tracks unfolding before us in the tunnel with all the mysterious blue and green and red and white signals flashing past. The train was deliciously loud, shrieking especially when it started to go around curves or slow down. The adults appeared to be enduring their subway transits, but I loved being on the train. 

When I was about 7 or 8, a great thing happened. Auntie took me to Radio City Music Hall. I will always remember the wonder of that day because that was when I totally fell in love with her. She must have vicariously enjoyed my thrill. We rode the subway into Manhattan. In those days, going to the movies meant a newsreel, a cartoon, and a double feature. But when you went to the movies at Radio City Music Hall, you also had a floor show. A great organ 

majestically arose out of stage right. Wondrous music, singing, and dancing ensued. The piece de resistance was the chorus line—the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes—who were so beautiful and so precise that they seemed to be a human machine. I felt that I could watch them forever. Afterwards, we went to the Automat for dinner—an intriguing treat because you could open the little doors and take any piece of food—a chicken leg, mashed potatoes, apple pie—that you wanted! I was tickled by that. 

In later life, Auntie suffered from Rheumatoid arthritis. She would throw back her head and howl like a wolf: “Owooo, Owooo!!” to illustrate how painful it was. She kept a bottle of gin in her refrigerator—one of her solid comforts. Thank God she died suddenly walking from her kitchen to the living room—she simply fell on her face. The apartment neighbors noticed they hadn’t seen her on her daily rounds, and they called the police, who found her body. 

In her later years, when I went to New York on business, I visited Auntie when she lived in her apartment on 82nd Street. One time I brought her a dress—I had guessed at the size—and it fit her perfectly. I think she liked it. I will never forget this because my Uncle Gus later told me that, when Auntie died, it was the only decent dress in her closet. She was buried in it. 

My maiden aunt died on August 21, 1994, at the age of 88. Knowing that I had no real father, she left me a small inheritance. I used it to buy a gorgeous solid cherry Scandinavian table and six chairs that grace my apartment to this day. 

I miss her still. 

High Plains Character 

By Judy Holleman 

I have always thought that were I to write a mystery, I would probably pattern its protagonist on one of my teachers, Miss Elizabeth Jane Work, as, you might say, the High Plains’ distinctive answer to Miss Jane Marple. 

The real Miss Work was, according to her obituary, “born in 1897, . . . spent her youth on the farm near Fort Morgan where she could drive any team of horses and regularly worked in the fields with her father; after her mother’s death, she became his housekeeper.” Although she ultimately got an MA from Columbia University, she got her BA from a small Kansas college before returning to Morgan County to teach in a rural school where “she taught 47 pupils in seven grades . . . riding horseback 12 miles a day to do so.” That was where she taught my mother; me, she taught later during the 42 years she spent on the faculty of Fort Morgan High School. 

She was, in short, a spinster with all that implied in those days. Her face was not actually unpleasant, but, in fact, it would have seemed at home graven on Mount Rushmore. Her appearance was always tidy and predictable: sensible “old-lady” lace-up shoes with Cuban heels; an outfit she herself had crocheted, knitted or wove the material for and tailored to her always ideal-healthy-weight frame; short haircut that never seemed to vary in length or style. Most distinctively, her hands were never idle, always engaged in purposeful action. Even as she, say, listened carefully to a plenary session speaker, her hands would be making something—baby blanket, bed jacket, lace doily—pausing occasionally to make a note with the pen and index card in her lap. 

Her classroom was arranged with her desk in one corner with the student desks arrayed in a horseshoe shape open to her as she propped herself on the front of her own desk. This permitted students to have face-to-face discussion on the one hand, and on the other hand, it meant there was no hiding place to escape her gimlet eye and probing questions. From time to time she’d march around behind us as we tried to respond to those questions. And woe betide the student grasping at the straw of some vaguely remembered name or phrase from the book: she’d use her thumb and middle finger to snap that one on the back of the head, exclaiming, ”Think! Don’t just try to memorize!” or, in more hopeless cases, “If you’re not going to use that brain, you may as well plant it and grow roses!” In fact, she was known for the lovely flowers she grew and generously provided for her church and people in the hospital, but we students speculated grimly about the fertilizer she used. 

One did not go to Miss Work as the dispenser of warm fuzzies, as if a surrogate mom or light-hearted pal. Her life had taught her (and she tried to teach us) that self-esteem was gained by making a successful effort to grow in understanding and in competence to do what was useful and right. 

But while some Fort Morganites will forever remember her as a gorgon who left them tongue-tied with fear, I think she really cared about our well-being and did everything in her power to get all to stretch to their best and to provide educational opportunities far beyond what most small plains communities offered. For instance, it was she who got the town into the AFS foreign exchange program (browbeating my mother, by-the-way, into signing permission for me to be our first exchange student.) And it was she who, on her own time and effort, saw to it that interested and prepared students got to participate in the earliest versions of DU’s Model UN and CU’s Conference on World Affairs. 

Who better, then to serve as prototype of the amateur sleuth persistently tracking down miscreants by the use of reason and her deep knowledge of every variety of virtue and folly in the community? 

Bobbie Harms is the class Ogden Nash and she often writes in rhyme. 

Miss Grove 

By Bobbie Harms 

Biology was her domain, 

But to me it was more like my bane. 

As a soul of considerable years 

Who’d resisted the shifting of gears, 

She dispensed her insights to a class 

Whose main focus was wanting to pass. 

We showed the expected respect 

And absorbed all her wisdom—except 

This one little bit of advice 

Meant for girls who were thought to be nice— 

That was sitting upon a boy’s lap 

Should be done with a carefully filled gap 

Of a pillow ‘tween her and the boy, 

Lest you create the kind of a joy 

Caused by impact of butt upon chap! 

Daddy: A Character Sketch 

By Pat Geraghty 

Daddy liked peace and quiet at the dinner table which, in Omaha, was a card table in the middle of the living room. At seven, I was old enough to know how to behave at mealtime and did so most of the time, except when, as Sarah grew old enough to sit in a high chair, she would do typical baby things that made me giggle. Since giggling is contagious, before long Mike would join in. Worst of all, Mother would inevitably become involved in our silliness. For Daddy, that was the last straw. 

Assuming his gruffest voice and most menacing scowl, he would then address all of us with, “Here! Here! Settle down!” We would try very hard to stop, but as any giggler can guess, we weren’t always successful. 

Dinnertime was becoming a problem. Daddy was the boss; there was no question about that. And although Mother often joined in our fun, she knew that it was her job to keep Daddy happy. This was the mid-forties, remember. 

Mother’s solution to disruptive behavior at the dinner table was to have us eat by candlelight. She thought the soft light would have a calming effect on us. She was right. It did. 

So we ate by candlelight until one evening when Daddy, who often took days to react to something new that he decided he didn’t like, demanded, “Why do we have to have candles every night? I can’t even see my goddamned food!” Staid and proper in most ways, somehow for him taking the Lord’s name in vain was okay. 

The lights went back on, and the giggling continued and so did the reprimands. The candlelight had been much better. 

Sarah’s antics made even Daddy laugh sometimes though he tried hard not to. Other times he became truly exasperated. I can still feel the tension because, although I didn’t mind it so much when his anger was directed towards us kids, it was uncomfortable when Mother was included. The candles were a very good idea actually, but if Daddy said, “No candles,” there would be no candles. Mother had to go back to the drawing board, and I don’t remember anything else being so effective. 

Eventually, we all grew out of the giggling stage, and I have many happy memories of the dinner hour. It became a time for lively discussion. Both Daddy and Mother encouraged our opinions even when they didn’t coincide with their own. In fact, one of my friends, who often ate at our house, once said that she was amazed that a group of people who were all Catholics and Democrats could argue so much about religion and politics. We still do.


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