Grace Notes - the Measure of Your Skill, Part I:

 Secondary Characters

One of my all-time favorite books for teens is SHADOW SPINNER, by Susan Fletcher. This is no one-time fling – it holds a secure place on the shelves of Literary Crush, and I’ll tell you why. Fletcher is a master at using figurative language with precise effect. In the craft book, Writing for Children and Teenagers, Lee Wyndham says that figurative language, figures of speech, and word images are the “grace notes” of quality writing. In other words, he says “Your ability to compose word images is a measure of your skill.”
“Figures of speech sharpen the picture, spotlight a character or a scene so that it becomes more vivid and real. They make the reader feel things much more intensely, heightening his or her emotional reaction to your story. They serve another purpose by eliminating the dozens of less colorful words it takes to get the same idea across.”
-Writing for Children and Teenagers, 124 
According to Wyndham, figurative language involves the “ability to see similarities between one thing and another.”

Fletcher certainly knows just how to do this. The plot of SHADOW SPINNER is such a humdinger of suspense you don’t notice how much of it is due to an effective use of figurative language. Grace notes appear in many forms throughout the book, but for this post, and the one to follow, I’d like to examine how they are used for two distinct purposes relating to characters. Next time I will examine how Fletcher uses grace notes to intensify the reader’s experience as filtered through the protagonist, Marjan. But today, let’s look at secondary characters and how Fletcher utilizes specific grace notes to:
a.)   distinguish one character from another – especially important when you have a double-digit cast  
b.)   highlight important secondary characters by painting pictures the reader can “see.”

Fletcher makes use of a different figurative techinque for each of the above goals. To distinguish one character from another, Fletcher employs a subtle and progressively layered Character Tag.

Character Tag, Layer One:
·         A Quick, Brief Description (QBD) as seen through the protagonist, 13 year-old Marjan.
For example, when Marjan first arrives at the harem, she meets
1.)    a “bony, beak-nosed woman of middle years” who takes Marjan to the baths,
2.)   a “beautiful woman with pale skin and coppery hair,” standing behind the Sultana,
3.)   a girl of “six or seven years old” with a pet gazelle. 

However, because Marjan is new to the harem and considered a servant, these characters have no reason to introduce themselves by name.  A lack of a name could be confusing to the reader the next time these characters come on the scene, but Fletcher avoids this by moving us to the second layer of clarity…

Character Tag, Layer Two:
·         Descriptive Tag based on Marjan’s first impression (QBD) – a tag which becomes a substitute for the unknown proper name. For example:
1.)    the woman at the baths becomes “the beak-nosed woman”
2.)   the beautiful woman becomes “the copper-haired girl”
3.)   the little girl becomes “the gazelle girl.” 

Eventually, Marjan discovers these characters’ proper names, but instead of immediately dropping their tags, Fletcher eases us through the transition by using…

Character Tag, Layer Three:
·         Proper name + Tag = “Soraya, the copper-haired girl.”

The result of this layered approach is a reader who has so memorized each secondary character that by time a character is identified by Name-Only, the name itself is loaded with meaning. In other words, when we read the name “Soraya,” we know exactly who she is and how she looks in the environment of the story.

Now. To help the reader “see” important secondary characters in detail, Fletcher uses more lengthy descriptions – a technique I call the Verbal Portrait. 

Fletcher focuses primarily on what these characters look like and how they move, but she occasionally draws attention to other senses, such as sound and smell.
Here are some examples of the Verbal Portrait:
1.       Soraya, the copper-haired girl, is described as having a “showy walk, with a lot of hip in it.  Her ankle bracelets jingled, and her long, unbound hair swished from side to side.” 

2.      Another character, Zaynab is painted as a “crinkle-faced woman” with a “high, rich, warbling voice,” who moves like “a plump, round cat - gliding along the flat parts [of the roof], leaping across gaps, scaling rickety ladders...mincing along ledges.” 

3.      However, the most colorfully drawn secondary character is the Khatun.  Here, Fletcher paints a picture that warrants fear and revulsion.  Marjan describes the Khatun as “hugely fat:”
“She seemed to spill over the edges of the massive cushion she was sitting on. Her neck fell in folds over her pearls and I could see the shapes of billowing mounds of flesh beneath her robes. Though her face was bloated, misshapen, it held traces of lost beauty...Between pouches of soft, fleshy skin, her dark eyes gleamed.”
- Shadow Spinner
The Khatun also exudes a “rotten, sickly sweet” smell that horrifies Marjan and accompanies the woman wherever she goes.  Marjan likens the Khatun to a spider in the middle of a “vast web that spanned the whole harem. Any disturbance - anything unusual that happened - would jerk the web...And she would know it.”

Now, if you can see each of these characters out of context, just imagine how effective these portraits are within the scope of the narrative!

For next time…. grace notes that ground the reader in Marjan’s emotions and setting, and a challenge for you, my fellow writers.
See you then!


  1. Oh, excellent post! You have made me want - no, NEED - to read this story. Well done!

  2. Great post. I will reference it in my class this summer on creating characters. Thanks.