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A Deep Dive Into Characters
Written by
She Writes
August 2018
Written by
She Writes
August 2018

Our guest post today comes from Sharon Myrick, author of School Taleswhere she challenges other writers to think of characters as people first and not the other way around. 

My novel, School Tales, received a Kirkus review containing this sentence: “Myrick is a thoughtful writer who gets deep into her characters’ psyche.” My publicist, Savannah, loved the comment and challenged me to write an essay elaborating on the statement. That is what a good teacher does – nudge a person to think deeper.

As I pondered the task, a memory emerged that surprised me. When I was in my thirties, I met an older woman who had spent most of her adult life in an institution for mentally retarded (as was said then) people. She had a daughter who also lived in the same institution. Both were out of the institution, due to recognition by citizens that such places should be closed down since they were harmful, not helpful, to people. As a result, the mother and daughter were able to live independent lives in an urban community. The older woman founded an advocacy group for the disabled which she named “People First.”

That was the most profound thinking I had personally encountered in my life. I took its meaning to heart. All the various labels we have for people – “disabled,” “student,” “character,” – cover up the underlying point that we are all “people first.” All of us spend a great deal of our lives in institutions (workplaces, schools, etc.) which do not promote our needs as people but instead relate to us through layers of authority, rules for behavior and standardized tasks to perform. Today, there is hope and advocacy in the air for transforming such institutions.

The purpose of school is to meet the needs of young people. What young people need is what we all need: to build relationships with others founded on trust; to learn who we are and where we belong; to make decisions for what is in our interest; to be there for others; to explore a wider world; etc. Recognizing we are all people first inspires the courage to go deep within ourselves, trust in friends and build thriving institutions like school.

A “character” is first and foremost a person (people first), with past experiences and future dreams, but living in the present full of interests which drive her/him. Uncovering one’s sense of self is a lifetime activity, with growing awareness of factors like an internal unwavering pivot which defines character. The sooner that awareness develops, the greater is a person’s ability to be self-directive. An institution can support that mission, for example by encouraging youth to be in charge of their own learning, or, hinder it. Controlling the journey from outside the person is not possible.

In School Tales the five teenage narrators have distinct voices as each confronts inner needs with the outer world: Sean learns about an unwavering pivot from the sea and his memories help him in his struggle with depression and loss of confidence; Chelsea discovers at college her aimless wandering, prompted by inexperience in decision-making at home or in high school, is not serving her well; Jake knows from the start what he wants but has trouble bringing reality in line with his unwavering need; Daniel thinks he is grounded in success as a goal but realizes “success” is a false socially constructed idea based on money; Cora also engages in unlearning, relentless in her exploration of false divisions between human beings. Their different journeys (characters) come from their different experiences in exploring life as a person.

Deep exploration can be scary as well as prompt tunnel vision without support and perspective from those we trust, including people of all ages and roles in our lives. Chelsea becomes “stuck” at an early age, losing her only important relationship – with Jake. Daniel recognizes he has the power to make life-altering independent decisions, bad ones, while those who care about him beyond his external veneer remain steadfast in their support. Cora opens up to friends, expanding her solid base of nurturance beyond parents and grandparents.

The dedication of School Tales states: “Dedicated to all people of youthful spirit who speak, write, create, and live their story of meaning in our world.” It is the youthful human spirit which traditional schools largely extinguish through control and standardization.  The progressive school in School Tales sees learning as an activity for all, regardless of age. Relationships among school staff, students, parents, and community members are all a focus for personable interaction. Sean emerges as a school leader, learning from the principal, “Chief”, that becoming a resource to others is much more powerful than directing them.

Sean is also a part of problem-solving Jake’s dream to be a farmer versus the outside threat from King Corn agribusiness. All of the School Tales characters play a role in the confrontation critical to sustainable living in the community. With students as inspiration and instigation of a creative approach, people of all backgrounds join together in support of a plan to infuse new economic life into their community.

The stories in School Tales emerged not from a writer trained in literary skills like character development, but by a person committed to express the importance of transforming our schools. My needs at the age of 70 are the same as what I needed as a teenager, to give voice to young people stating their needs, expecting those needs should form the basis of school purpose. My learning to write in the last few years was by doing, getting on paper experiences typical of high school students, receiving extremely valuable feedback from editors of how to tell the tales more clearly and feedback from friends that the stories were on target and important. If the characters in School Tales are compelling, it is because young people are compelling.

People I have talked to about school change sometimes have strong misconceptions about teenagers. If I express an idea such as, “Students should have more choice in what they learn and how they go about the learning,” a typical response is, “They’ll choose to do nothing.” This profound misconception can only be corrected by adults learning to seek out and listen to what youth tell us they need.

Writing School Tales was my return to youthful spirit, free of a job in an institution founded on controlling me (a teacher) and everyone else (students) in it. The freedom to decide the characters I created for School Tales was exhilarating. I learned to listen to the student voices in my head telling me what they needed, what any person would need, as “people first.”

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  • Lisa Thomson

    This is so interesting. Thanks for sharing your character development and your passion behind School Tales. 'People First'. love that concept.