by Rhonda Browning White
Kate Walbert’s novel-in-stories Our Kind relates the lives of a group of aging, country-clubbing grandmothers, each of whom lives alone following divorce. These women each have empty-nest syndrome and each is a woman scorned. They live in close proximity to one another, share many of the same interests and are close in age. Despite all these commonalities, each is depicted differently from the others. There are no cookie-cutter characters in this story, though many situations and issues that link them. While there are several ways to fully develop and present a character, Walbert uses both direct and indirect methods that provide distinct contrast between each of these women.
What do I mean by “direct and indirect methods”? Let me explain. Indirect method can be described as telling: an author describes the character’s desires, ethics, motivation and feelings. It works as summary in order to condense a lot of important information into a few lines or paragraphs. A character can also be described using indirect method through the eyes of another character.
Walbert uses this indirect technique in describing Esther: “We had never understood her. Rich as Croesus, she drove a Dodge and compared prices at the Safeway. Her husband, Walter, had died years ago, but she still referred to him as if he had run downtown for milk and would be back any minute. She allowed her hair to gray, her nails to go ragged . . . she kept chameleons on her living room draperies and would often arrive at parties with paint on her hands” (6). We see Esther through someone else’s eyes, indirectly. As readers, we can choose whether or not to believe the narrator.
Direct methods include speech, action, appearance and thought. Appearance, of course, is crucial to developing characters and their personalities. We think differently of a woman in a Dior business suit than we do of one in a dirty, sagging bathrobe. Speech, however, is Walbert’s forte in directly presenting her characters. Her character Canoe comes across as no-nonsense, forthright, sometimes abrupt to the point of flirting with rudeness, and we know this through her dialogue. Likewise, character Barbara is a peacemaker, unwilling to ruffle feathers. In a scene where the two women are watching their pre-teen daughters decorate floppy hats at a birthday party, these difference are clear through their dialogue. Here, Canoe talks about the idea she had for her daughter’s hat-decorating party—an idea her daughter detested: “ ‘I told her in her teen years she can do what she pleases,’ Canoe is saying . . . ‘When I was her age, I would have given my right arm for this party. The shower inspiration story was bullshit. I was trying to rally the troops’” (147). Barbara’s response to her daughter Megan’s unhappiness with the party is much different: “‘Excellent,’ Barbara says of Megan’s work, then she squints up at us. ‘Megan just needed encouragement,’ she says” (150). We see distinct differences in not only the speech patterns, but in the personalities of these two women through their dialogue. This is an example of the direct method of character presentation.
Consider this exercise for developing characters: Put each of your characters in a room together, and have them describe an object on the table. Start a conversation between them. How does each character’s distinct personality surface as they uniquely describe, perhaps even argue over, the object’s traits? What is illuminated about your character that you didn’t know until now? Did you use the direct method, or the indirect method of characterization? Share comments about your results!
Walbert, Kate. Our Kind: A Novel. New York: Scribner, 2005. Print.