Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Banana Leaf Characters

Ten enchanting little folk live in my study. They sway above me as I work on my computer and they are very dear to me.

Who are they?

They are the characters on a mobile my husband bought me last year when we spent a weekend on a wild life farm. Artists crafted them in Kenya using simple materials on hand—things like leaves from banana trees, banana skins and sisal twine. The tools the artists used to dry, twist, twirl and fashion these materials into these endearing folk are readily available—the sun, and their own hands, knives, and scissors.

Today I'll chat about some of the resources around me which I use to create my characters.

Dressing to face the world
A Kenyan craftsman dressed this lady in strands of  bright pink fiber from a broom. The result is a colorful character to say the least.

I take note of people's apparel when I dress my characters.
Zephaniah, one of my favorites, came into being when I noticed a tall man swathed in a length of red patterned fabric (probably a tablecloth someone had discarded) and wearing a khaki military style hat rummaging in dustbins  for second hand objects and scraps of food.
Zephaniah is a foreigner in South Africa trying to survive on other people's trash, and throughout the book he appears in various weird and wonderful outfits.

Speaking of characters
Wouldn't you love to know what these two are saying to each other? Eavesdrop for a moment and see if you can overhear their conversation.

It's always fun to listen to snippets of conversation and work them into my writing. For example, I once heard someone say, "Oh that's a good area—a  lawyer was murdered there." Now there's a gem I can use.

Body Language
Hands on her hips shows this character is really uptight- perhaps she's telling off her neighbor in no uncertain terms. Don't rely on dialog to show your characters' personalities and thoughts, show them in their actions as well.

People around me, whether or not I know them, are a huge resource as they communicate with body language all the time. I have only to observe them and I pick up a myriad of details that I can use in my writing. The lady in front of me in the line glances frequently at her watch and drums her fingers on the top of her purse, the couple behind her raise their eyebrows as a nearby child misbehaves  . . .

Hobbies and Occupations
I imagine that our next character is on her way to work. Perhaps her job is to help old people in a care facility. Or perhaps she runs the local library or . . .

There is so much fascinating material to be found in  the careers and hobbies of people around us. A few weeks ago, I was privileged to accompany an occupational therapist friend  to work for a day. The material I gathered as I watched the therapists work, and from conversations with their clients, helped me develop my characters and make them 3D instead of stereotypes. Caroline, one of my characters, took on the endearing trait of asking her clients to give her a "high five" each time they made the tiniest step of progress. This gesture acknowledges their achievement, boosts their morale and exercises important sets of muscles.

At Home

This character holds her brush ready to attack the dust bunnies gathered under her furniture. My own home and those of my friends provide more material for my writing as they help me describe settings for the action in my story to take place. I take note of the mirror outside the front door of my friend's house--not only does it reflect me as I approach the door, but it shows a movement in the shrubs behind me. Perhaps someone up to no good is lurking behind me or one of my characters as she visits her friend.

As this banana leaf character trudges along, she carries a burden on her shoulders. And real people also carry burdens and secrets which we may not be able to see with our physical eyes, but which determine their behavior and affect their relationships. My characters come alive for me as I write about how they deal with the issues in their lives. I love to see how a character changes through the course of a story, especially when it affords me an opportunity to show how God works in lives. Ideas for burdens and secrets for my characters are readily found in human interest stories in newspapers and magazines, on the internet and TV programs.
I watch this little banana leaf person swing gently on her banana skin and wonder what she's thinking. Perhaps she's dreaming and imagining what it would be like to go on a cruise around the world, fly in a glider, or . . .
My imagination is the always-with-me-tool which I use when I write, otherwise my words are just words, and not stories. My imagination asks and answers questions like "What if Megan can no longer use her hands to shoot photos?" or "What if Ellie's foster child is taken away from her care?"

My Stories
The Kenyan craftsmen made excellent use of the materials available to them, I pray that I will use the resources around me to weave stories as pleasing to my readers as my mobile is to me.

Ruth Ann Dell writes children's stories and international Christian fiction from her home in a sunny South African suburb. She is a member of several writing groups including the American Christian Fiction Writers and Writer's Ink. Her desire is to craft gripping stories which draw her readers into a closer relationship with God.
Ruth Ann and her husband have lived in several countries and are renovating a cottage in the heart of Ireland.


  1. Beautiful. I can see how these would really help, especially in how body posture shows so much of a person's character. For myself I often put together a collage of pictures that denote various aspects to my characters, the setting and plot. Tons of pictures, so that as soon as I look at it, I'm back in my fictional world. Great post.

  2. What a beautiful mobile, Ruth! And a great post ... fascinating and informative. Thanks!

  3. Ruth Ann, I really enjoyed your post. Thanks for sharing your lovely mobile with us.

  4. What a wonderful mobile....with a wonderful life of its own...I loved your post Ruth..:-)

  5. Many thanks Christine, Marion, Valerie and Yvonne for taking the time to leave a comment on my blog. It was fun taking the photos and writing about my little folk.

  6. Beautiful post, beautiful mobile! Thanks so much,Ruth, for all your practical ideas but also your lovely imaginative writing.