Have you ever thought about what makes a story character compelling?
Yesterday, our Village Writers’ Club sponsored a one-day workshop with Roland Mann, author, editor, speaker and creative writing teacher from Winter Park, Florida. http://www.rolandmann.me
He showed us how to develop unique characters.
A strong character must be decisive, courageous, and colorful. However, he should also be flawed in some respect. He has a goal, but in order to achieve it, he must overcome some obstacle. If a character has a secret—something serious that could cause him harm if it were revealed—that makes for an even more interesting story.
I hope the following story’s protagonist will grab your attention.
Madelyn F. Young
Man! I still can’t believe I’m dead. When you’re a kid, you just take it for granted you’ll grow up, get a job, have a family—maybe even do something big—you know—like rescue someone from a burning building or something—or discover a cure for cancer. Dying at thirteen is way off the radar.
What really gets me is the guy who caused my death isn’t even sorry. In fact, he may not even be charged. If I tell you my story, maybe you can make him pay.
His name is Bert Brown—not hard to remember. He lives just around the corner in that two-story duplex. We’ve known each other since first grade, but we never played together. His dad whipped him a lot, so Bert would run off and stay gone till the welfare workers brought him home. Finally, he got so big and strong his dad didn’t mess with him any more. His mom wasn’t in the picture. She left before Bert ever started school.
I used to feel sorry for him—until a couple years ago when he started whipping up on me. He and his buddies would corner me on the playground and make me give them stuff—like candy or gum or something. If I didn’t, they said they’d meet me after school and do a number on me. Since it was five against one, I figured it was easier just to keep them well stocked.
One time I went off to school and forgot to bring my stash. Big mistake. I came home with a skinned nose and bruises, but I said I fell off my bike and Mom believed me. I knew if I told, she’d march up to school and complain. That wouldn’t solve anything. The principal couldn’t do anything about stuff that happened away from school. Besides, Bert would know I tattled—went running home to Mommy like a little sissy.
But things got worse. The next year, Bert wanted money. I could give him my allowance, but that’s all I had. He started calling me “nerd” and “fag” and stuff like that.
The other kids hated me too. None of them sat with me at lunch. At gym, I was always the last one to be called for a team. It didn’t help that I always struck out or dropped the ball in the outfield, so I couldn’t blame them too much. I never was any good at sports.
One Saturday things really blew up. Mom worked on weekends, so I’d go to the movies just to pass the time. Of course, I didn’t have my allowance any more, so I’d “borrow” a little money from Mom’s purse earlier in the week, but she never seemed to notice.
Anyhow, that Saturday I came out of the theater, and Bert and his gang jumped me and dragged me down to the woods behind the mall. They beat me up. Don’t know why. Guess they thought they’d just have a little fun.
“Look at this wimp. He can’t even fight.”
It was true. I landed a few blows, but they pinned me down and went to it.
When Mom got home, she found me doctoring my black eyes and bruised face. My ribs were sore too.
“Oh, my God! Darrell, what happened?” Mom took the washcloth from me and gently dabbed the bloody scrapes on my cheeks. “Who did this to you?”
“Oh, just some kids from school who don’t like me,” I said.
“Well, who was it? Did you tease them or do something to make them mad?” Mom sounded angry.
“No, they just don’t like me.”
“Well, they can’t get away with this. We’re going to report this to Mr. Harding, and tell him what happened.”
“Mom, please don’t do that! Pul-leeze!” Now my puffy eyes stung with tears. “The principal will punish them, but then they’ll come after me even worse.”
“Darrell, you’ve got to stick up for yourself. They’re only bullies. They’ll back down, once they know you won’t put up with their abuse.”
I probably don’t need to tell you how all that turned out. On Monday morning, Mom took off from work, and she hauled me into Mr. Harding’s office even before the first bell. He assured her he’d get to the bottom of it, and she left. I sat in his office while he rounded up Bert and brought him in.
Bert admitted he and I fought, but then Mr. Harding only gave us “the speech.”
“I can’t make you guys like each other, but I can insist you stay out of each other’s way, okay? Darrell, you need to be sure you’re not pestering Bert. And Bert, you need to leave Darrell alone. Now, can I count on you both to do what I say?”
“But I didn’t do anything,” I said.
“Well, if it happens again, you’ll both go to detention for a week. Understand? Now get out of here and get to class.”
After that, Bert left me alone—for a while, anyway. Of course, I made sure to stay out of his sight. At recess, I hid around the corner of the building, and after school, I took the bus instead of riding my bike. He’d still make fun of me in the cafeteria and get the other kids to pull pranks on me, but that wasn’t so bad. I was used to it.
The next year we both graduated to middle school. Now Bert and his thug-buddies really stepped up the pace.
The worst thing was that he started riding the bus. One afternoon, he and his pals surrounded me where I sat and started jabbing me with their pencils. I tried to defend myself, but they just laughed. The driver pulled over and stopped the bus. She came back to where we were and made me move up to the front. Then all the kids laughed.
“Darrell, from now on you need to sit up here by me, you hear? I can’t drive and watch what’s going on back there every second.”
I nodded. The little kid across the aisle stared at me. Probably wondered what I did wrong. I turned to look out the window.
At supper that night, Mom noticed the gray puncture marks on my arms. “Darrell, what’s that?”
“Just more of Bert’s fun,” I said.
“Fun? Doesn’t look like fun to me.” Mom frowned. “What happened?”
I told her about the bus.
“Well, this time we’re going to do something about it.”
I’ll have to say Mom really tried. The next day she showed up at middle school on her lunch break, and this time they directed her to the counselor. Miss Sanders called Bert and me into the office while Mom was there.
The counselor began her scolding. “Bert, you should know better than to do something like this,” she said. “You know the bus rules. The driver should never be distracted by disturbances on the bus.”
“Aw, we were just playing, Miss Sanders. I wasn’t really hurting him.”
“Not hurting him?” Mom’s eyes flashed with anger. “Those are puncture wounds!” She spun around to face the counselor. “Miss Sanders, it’s time for the school to put a stop to this. I refuse to let my son be a victim on the bus or anywhere else. Can’t you do something about this bullying?”
“Well, Mrs. Denton, we can punish the boys for fighting and suspend their bus privileges,” Miss Sanders said, “but their conflicts will continue until they can agree to get along.”
Miss Sanders turned her attention to Bert and me.
“What about it? Are you fellows man enough to apologize, shake hands, and stop this foolishness?”
Bert stuck out his hand and grinned. “Sure, I’ll shake his hand.”
“No. I didn’t start any of these fights.” I could feel my face getting hot. “I’m not going to shake or apologize for something I didn’t do.”
Miss Sanders frowned. “Darrell, Bert is trying to apologize. Won’t you accept his apology?”
I shook my head and rushed out of the office. Mom hurried after me.
“Darrell, wait. We’ll talk with the principal.”
“No, Mom. It’s over. I’ll just have to defend myself better the next time.”
All that happened a couple months ago. Now I’m lying here in this casket.
Bert and his gang found me alone down by the river. I guess they hid and followed me. They threw me in, and I couldn’t swim. I hollered for help, but they just laughed.
Now everyone thinks I committed suicide. Bert wrote a note and slipped it inside my backpack. They found it at school the next day.
People said I just gave up—couldn’t take it any more. Poor kid was a real loser, they said. No friends, always being picked on.
Mom never believed it, though. She knew I wouldn’t kill myself. She took one look at that writing and went straight to the police.
I know she’ll keep the pressure on too, and one of these days, they’ll find out the truth. Besides, I figure Bert isn’t finished with his meanness. It’ll get worse. Maybe his pals will decide that extortion and murder isn’t really their game. Maybe they’ll spill the beans, and Bert will go to prison.
Then I’ll have my revenge.
I hope he meets the biggest bully in the pen.