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What's wrong with Huckleberry Finn?

Huckleberry Finn, circa 1885

I’ve been thinking about writing this article for a while now, ever since the recent flap about removing “the n-word” from Mark Twain’s most famous novel. Well, today’s the day. Let me start by being perfectly clear: this post isn’t about that. I have no problem at all with the language in that book. The vocabulary Twain uses is all perfectly accurate for its time and culture. It is entirely relevant to both the plot to the book’s whole point. In my opinion, anybody who wants to change it is an idiot. I will admit, though, that I found the counter-reaction by the folks who want to replace it with robot was pretty amusing. By the response they got, I’d say I was hardly alone in that.

No. Vocabulary of any stripe is not what’s wrong with Huckleberry Finn. Now that we’ve got that clear, we can move on to talking about what is wrong with Huckleberry Finn, subtitled:

How Mark Twain sabotaged his characters


Character lessons from a classic

Pick whichever you like, because the way I see it, Twain made some massive errors in character development in that book. Don’t get me wrong. The guy was a brilliant writer, with a flair for dialect that won’t likely be repeated any time in the next few centuries. But as somebody who specializes in techniques for effective character development in fiction (which is why you’re reading this blog, after all), I have to take Twain to task for a few things. Oh, and I suppose in the interests of fairness, I should say that this whole post is basically one huge spoiler, so if you haven’t actually read Huck Finn yet, then a) where have you been? And b) go read it, then come back. I’ll wait.


Huck is inconsistently drawn. On the one hand, he’s the street-smart kid who has had to fend for himself his whole life. His Pap is an abusive drunkard, so much so that Huck has spent much of his life prior to the start of the book living on the streets rather than staying within arm’s reach of his old man. And he makes it, right? He survives. That speaks to a self-reliant, intelligent boy. One with some mettle to him. In fact, the very sort of character we can believe would, in the early chapters of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, fake his own death and scoot off down the Mississippi, with little more than the clothes on his back and his own self-confidence, in order to escape his abusive father forever. Great, dramatic opening to the novel, and it sets a certain tone for Huck.

Unfortunately, subsequent events undermine Huck’s portrayal quite a bit.

There are two major breaks in Huck’s portrayal. The first one comes when Huck and Jim encounter those two charlatans, the King and the Duke. These guys are con men. Their deal is to travel up and down the Mississippi, stopping in little towns along the way just long enough to set up some kind of scam as fortune tellers, mesmerists, religious revivalists, whatever, long enough to fleece the locals before leaving town.

They are indeed colorful characters to add to the novel, but they’re a problem for the portrayal of Huck because Huck ought to be smarter than that. When he meets these two jokers, there’s a bunch of dialogue about the sorts of business they’re into, and it’s obviously not legit. One of them mentions selling some sort of snake oil to take the tartar off of teeth, which it does, except that it generally takes off the enamel too. That kind of thing. Huck is right there to overhear all of this—he has to be, the book is in first person and Huck’s the POV character—so he darn well ought to know they’re both no good.

Except, then one of them claims to be a Duke, and then the other one claims to be a King, and Huck basically goes along with it. Why? Huck ought to know better. He and Jim are both heading down river, trying to escape scrutiny from, well, anybody in authority. The authorities will send Huck back to his Pap, and Jim back to his owners, and neither one of them wants that. So why let two charlatans whose very modus operandi invites scrutiny hang out with you? Why? It makes no logical sense, and all we can conclude is that Huck isn’t really as sharp as we had been led to believe. And sure enough, later on one of these guys more or less turns in Jim for some reward money. Which leads us to:

Tom Sawyer

Wait, didn’t I say this was about Huckleberry Finn? I did, and we’ll get to the second major failing in Huck’s portrayal in a minute, but first let’s look at the problem with Tom Sawyer. I don’t mean Tom Sawyer the book, I mean Tom Sawyer the character. We’re supposed to like Tom Sawyer, right? That loveable scamp! In Tom Sawyer (the book), Tom Sawyer (the kid) gets into all kinds of mischief. He’s a little devil, for sure, but a cute one and essentially good at heart. We’re given to understand that he is a good kid, despite his adventurous carryings-on.

Only he’s not. Or maybe the sudden wealth he acquired at the end of Tom Sawyer changed him, or something, because in Huck Finn, Tom is not a good kid at all. He’s a thoughtless, callous little prick. Again, if it has been awhile since you read the book, let me remind you:

So Jim is in captivity, being held at Tom’s Aunt Sally’s place, where Huck has ended up, and through a case of mistaken identity, Tom and Huck pretend to be each other for a while. That part’s rather amusing, but what isn’t amusing is the part that comes next. Huck explains to Tom that Jim is being held captive, and asks Tom’s help in setting Jim free. Tom says sure, he thinks that sounds like great fun, but what would be even more fun would be if they played it up as a grand escape, a’la The Count of Monte Cristo.

Rather than just busting Jim out forthwith, Tom concocts this elaborate sequence of preparations they have to undertake, and tasks for Jim to complete, because that’s how “the best authorities” say it’s supposed to be done. Such as, Jim has to keep a journal on a stolen shirt using his own blood for ink. Never mind that Jim can’t read and write. Tom wants him to scrawl messages on the bottom of tin plates and toss them out the window to smuggle messages out, fashion a rope ladder, and on and on.

If it was just for a day, just to occupy the time until nightfall when they could actually spring Jim out of there, then it wouldn’t be a problem at all. But this business goes on for months. Literally. Tom extends Jim’s captivity for about two whole months because Tom wants to play at his little prisoner escape game. Not once does Tom give a single thought to what Jim must be enduring, locked up inside a tiny, cramped shed that’s dark as a cave and hot as an oven, and every minute worrying and heartsick over whether he’s ever going to see his wife and kids again.

Poor Jim. Enduring day after day of hell while Tom enjoys his little game. But endure it he does, becausae he knows he’s a slave and has no right to ask for anything better. (Note, that’s characterization, too, but in a good way that supports our view of Jim.)

Now look. I know times were different then. And I know people weren’t brought up to think about how slaves felt about anything. Tom is just a product of his times. But no matter how I look at it, I just can’t forgive him for causing Jim to endure months of unnecessary captivity. It amounts to torture, is what it is, and that simply does not square with the view of Tom as a good-hearted person. He’s just selfish, that’s all.

Huck, part two

Which brings us back to Huck. Because Huck is different than Tom. Huck actually has been thinking about Jim’s side of things. He has developed a sense of empathy for Jim, through their shared adventure down the river, through the many kind things Jim has done for Huck. That’s the whole reason why he has got it into his head to free Jim. So how is it, then, that Huck goes along with Tom’s cruel adventure plan which does nothing but put Jim’s freedom at risk? How is it that when Tom starts talking about tin plates and ink made out of blood, that Huck doesn’t smack him right across the mouth and say “Tom, Jim’s my friend and I won’t have him locked up one more minute than I have to. I’m bustin’ him out this very night. You can help me, or you can get out of my way.”

I don’t know, but he doesn’t. I guess Twain was having too much fun with this little slapstick side-plot or something. The problem is, it casts Huck in a poor light. All the mettle we saw in him, the inner strength that enabled him to undertake a great risk in order to escape from his father, vanishes like a haystack in a hurricane next to Tom’s tomfoolery. That, my friends, is a characterization problem.

What’s right with Huckleberry Finn

But it’s not all bad. Besides seeing Jim behave like a slave would, I would be remiss not to give Twain major props for the bit of characterization that happens at the turning point in the novel. This is immediately after Huck discovers that Jim is gone and that the King and the Duke have turned him in for “forty dirty dollars” of the reward on Jim’s head. Huck is debating whether to write to Jim’s owner, thinking that if Jim is doomed to be a slave, he should at least be back with his family. (See, empathy!) And he’s worried for his immortal soul, because he knows it’s a sin to help a runaway slave. Except, Huck doesn’t want to send Jim back into that life, even though everything he has ever been taught says that would be the right thing to do. Deep down, he know it isn’t right at all. Fair warning: I refuse to vandalize Twain’s prose in this passage by either omitting the n-word or replacing it with “robot.”

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn’t know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter—and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson, your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville, and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. —Huck Finn

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell"—and tore it up.

That’s characterization, right there. Seeing a character willingly sacrifice his immortal soul to save a friend, that’s powerful stuff. For all the characterization problems in the novel, I think that moment saves the book. Twain took 220 pages (at least in the edition I have) to bring Huck to that moment, and every bit of it contributes to the powerful effect of seeing Huck make that choice.

May 28, 2011 05:07 UTC

Tags: character, consistent, Mark Twain

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How to revise your characters' mannerisms

This is part 3 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. Today, we’re talking about techniques for revising mannerisms. As with dialogue, the goal with these is to present characters whose mannerisms are distinctive and consistent. But beyond that, you want to look for opportunities to use mannerisms to show characterization.

Great characters have mannerisms that make them distinct from other characters. Unless, I suppose, you’re writing about an army of clones. Real people hold their heads just-so, or gesture when they speak in specific ways that are distinctive to them. The whole package of mannerisms creates what you might call a “fingerprint of motion” for the character. That person moves like no other. That person uses his or her body differently than everyone else. Not in a strange or bizarre way, necessarily, but just unique to them. Have you ever seen someone from behind, at a bit of a distance, but you knew immediately it was them just by the way they were carrying themselves? As you revise, that’s what you’ll be striving for.

Physical mannerisms, being largely unconscious or else the product of physical factors the character can’t control, should also be consistent. If your character has a limp at the beginning of the book because of an old knee injury, he’ll still have it at the end. The caveat, as always, is that you may have a plot point, such as knee surgery or moving to a part of the world with different customs, that forces a character to change mannerisms.

So how do you do it?

Make lists, flag the manuscript, revise

The mechanical process for revising mannerisms and attributes is pretty similar to what you do for dialogue. I covered that yesterday so I won’t re-hash all that here. In short, you make lists for each character of how they move and how they think. Compare the lists and tweak them until you’re satisfied that everybody is distinctive. Then flag the manuscript using your favorite method so you can easily locate each character’s scenes, and then revise the characters one by one. That part is pretty straightforward.

What I want to talk about instead are strategies for editing those lists to create individual fingerprints of motion for each character, and to make sure those fingerprints work for you on multiple levels.

Reduce over-used mannerisms

If you look at your mannerism lists and find that they’re already distinctive, great. Pat yourself on the back and move on. But more likely you’ll notice that you have lots of characters who sigh to themselves when they’re disappointed, or who roll their eyes to show disdain, or who gesture wildly when they talk or whatever it may happen to be. What then?

If that’s the case, odds are also good that this particular mannerism comes from you. You may well do this yourself. Think about what that mannerism means to you. Do you sigh to yourself because you need to express your disappointment but want to keep it hidden from others? Do you gesture wildly because you get excited about whatever you’re talking about? Ponder the deeper meaning behind those largely unconscious gestures.

Don’t worry too much about whether you’re right or wrong, just think about it until you have a plausible-sounding idea for why you do that thing. If it’s not something you yourself do, don’t worry about that either, but still spend some time thinking about what the mannerism means. Once you know, ask yourself which character in your story is the best fit for that meaning.

For example, if upon reflection you decide that you roll your eyes a lot because you’re smarter than everyone else in the world and so to you everyone else seems like an idiot, then find the most egotistic character in the book and let him or her have that mannerism. Not that this applies to you, of course. Oh no. It’s just an example. Still, when you take the eye-rolling away from everyone else, the gesture becomes a way to show the self-centered arrogance of the one person who does it without you ever having to use the words “self-centered” or “arrogant” anywhere in your manuscript.

This is how you make mannerisms work for you on multiple levels. Used carefully, not only does a mannerism create distinction, it also shows, rather than tells, characterization. Used carelessly, it doesn’t show anything.

Add distinctive mannerisms

When you’re done reducing your over-used mannerisms, odds are your characters’ lists will all be a lot shorter. Which in turn means that the characters are less fully developed; the character’s fingerprint of motion has been wiped away. So, time to add some good stuff back in. My two favorite ways to do this are backstory-based brainstorming, and emulation.

Consider the character’s backstory, the sum-total of that person’s history and personality, and brainstorm ways it may have shaped the character’s mannerisms. You may have a character who is naturally shy, and in groups has trouble getting her turn in the conversation to add her own thoughts and perspectives. What can she do about that? Well, “don’t be shy” isn’t exactly plausible advice, so maybe instead she co-opts a social convention from childhood: raising your hand. Back in gradeschool, we all had to raise our hands before we could speak. So maybe she does that. Not a huge, arm straight up to the sky pose like we did in school, but just a subtle hand raised up maybe to shoulder level. The other people around the table will see this, and on some level they’ll recognize that gesture as a social convention for indicating that you want to speak. They’ll see her hand and quiet down for a moment so she can talk.

Emulation is just another facet of that old adage “great writers steal.” In this case, you’re not stealing other people’s words, but rather, borrowing bits of other people’s fingerprints of motion. I like to pick famous people for this, because it’s really easy to find visual references for them on YouTube or elsewhere. Take three politicians: George Bush had that signature way he would grip the sides of the podium with both hands when he spoke, with his shoulders hunched up just a little bit. John McCain has that stiffness to his body from the indignities he suffered when he was a prisoner of war in Viet Nam. Barack Obama tends to gesture with a flat hand, an open palm, when he talks. And when he speaks from a podium, his head turns right-to-left-to-right with almost clockwork regularity about every two seconds.

So think about famous people, or just people you know well, and find little pieces of motion you can borrow for the betterment of your characters. Again, think about what those pieces of motion might mean, and make sure to hand them out in ways that best allow you to show each character.


Use these strategies to make sure every character has a fingerprint of motion that is unique to them, that is believable given their history, and that is also useful for showing that character’s personality. Once you have a solid list for each character, use the revision processes I discussed in yesterday’s article to apply them across your manuscript. It is, as someone on yesterday’s article commented, a lot of work. There’s no getting around that. If it helps:

“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. I rewrote the first part of Farewell to Arms at least fifty times.” —Ernest Hemingway

“I’m not a great writer, I’m a great rewriter.” —Paddy Chayefsky

< Back to part 2: revising dialogue | Next: part 4, revising physical attributes >

December 04, 2009 19:38 UTC

Tags: character, revision, mannerisms, distinctive, consistent, show don't tell

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How to revise your dialogue

This is part 2 in my post-NaNoWriMo series on strengthening your characters while revising your novel. Today, we’re talking about techniques for revising dialogue. The goal with dialogue, aside from advancing the plot, should be to show your characters’ inner selves through how they speak.

Great dialog is distinctive; each character sounds only like himself and no other. The rule of thumb is that when the reader can tell immediately who said a line of dialogue without looking at the surrounding narrative, you’ve done your job.

Great dialogue is also consistent; characters should end the book still sounding like they did in the beginning. The caveat here, of course, is that elements of the character arc and plot may well influence how the character speaks. For example, you might have a character who undergoes a character arc in which he stops being so much of an insensitive jerk, which you show by changing the way he speaks. Or you may have a plot point in which the character suffers a stroke with partial paralysis, and physically cannot speak the same as before. But barring those types of effects, great dialogue is consistent.

So how do you do it?

Make lists

Start by realizing that having finished the manuscript, you now know each character much better than you did at the beginning of the book. Much as you may have wanted to make each character sound distinctive from the beginning, you may simply not have known them well enough to do so. But now you do.

Start by making a list of each character in the book—the major ones and the minor ones too. While you should spend more energy making sure your major characters’ dialogue is flawless, dialogue is about the only opportunity that minor characters have to pop off the page as real people. Then for each character, write down some descriptions of how that character speaks. List their verbal tics. Flip through the manuscript, looking for lines of their dialogue to remind yourself of the details of each character’s voice, and summarize it all.

Revise the lists

Now take a look across these lists. Look for similarities between characters, or characters where you didn’t know what to write besides “speaks normally.” Similarities indicate places where you may want to change one or the other character to make them more distinctive.

For example, you might notice that all your characters use “really” quite often as an intensifier. You could change one character to use “very” instead, and change another character not to do that at all. That character might resort to more round-about ways of emphasizing his or her points, such as by saying “I’m quite sure that...” instead.

Conversely, characters whose lists indicate a generic voice are opportunities to create verbal tics specifically for the purpose of making the characters come alive. If the character comes from a place with a distinctive accent or dialect, make use of that. You might even change the character’s background to provide that opportunity. Or you might think about people you know who talk in distinctive ways and make the character emulate them.

Work the lists over until you’re satisfied that each character’s list is sufficiently distinctive from the others. Make use of the techniques I gave in this earlier article to make sure each character’s list of verbal tics also fits his or her personality. Yes, the list should be distinctive from the others, but the items on it should also help you show the character traits you’ll want to show.

Flag the manuscript or make a spreadsheet

The idea here is to find a way to work on your characters one at a time, rather than trying to fix each character’s dialogue simultaneously. I mean, you could just go through the manuscript line by line, fixing each bit of dialogue as you encounter it. But it’s difficult to keep a firm grip on all your character’s speech patterns at the same time, and since the whole point of revising is to increase the overall quality, I’m going to give you two methods for revising each character in isolation.

The first method, and often the most practical, is to use peel-off flags and highlighters. Start by printing out the manuscript. The whole thing. You might even do it double-spaced to give yourself room to revise on the page. Then read through it, using highlighters to mark each character’s dialogue with a different color. Don’t worry about changing anything, just mark everything. Similarly, use those little colored tape flag thingies to mark the beginnings of scenes where each character occurs.

Your manuscript will end up looking like a paint store exploded all over it. That’s ok, because now you’ll be able to easily scan through the manuscript, looking for colors rather than reading the words, to locate each character’s dialogue. Oh, and one other tip: you may be tempted to use those new colored sharpie markers to highlight with. Don’t. They stink, and once it soaks into the paper, that sharpie smell doesn’t go away. You’d think it would, but it doesn’t. Stick with the old-fashioned wide-tip highlighters. Your nose will thank you.

The second method, if you’re the techie type, is to make a spreadsheet. Literally extract every line of dialogue onto separate worksheets, one for each character. You may also want to track the chapter number and/or page number, to make putting everything back easier. This is a ton of cut-and-paste work, but it does offer the benefit of allowing you to see all of a character’s dialogue together without anything else getting in the way. It will make revising the dialogue later much faster, and give you more consistent results. If you can stand the work involved, I’d recommend it.

Revise the manuscript

Now you’re ready to revise. Pick a character. Re-read that character’s list of dialogue attributes you made earlier. Get it firmly in your head, and once you’re ready to channel that character’s soul out onto the page, begin.

If you went with the highlighter method, start flipping through the pages. Don’t read, just let your eyes glaze over watching for green spots or whatever the character’s color is. When you find one, read the line and see if it fits the list. If not, revise on the page or in your work processor, whichever you prefer. I find it easier to revise on the page, rather than having to flip back and forth between paper and screen to do the edits. I save those all for one final pass after I’ve fixed everything.

If you went with the spreadsheet commando method, here’s where you get to feel smug and superior to everyone else. Hit each character’s worksheet, look for lines that don’t fit, and fix them. You’re in the enviable position of being easily able to glance at lines from the beginning and end of the manuscript, looking for shifts in tone that don’t belong. You can even track which lines you have changed and which you haven’t, to minimize what comes next: Re-copy the new lines back into the manuscript.


However you do it, keep those two goals in mind: distinctiveness and consistency. Remember, too, that these same techniques work equally well for inner monologue, which is the direct presentation of a character’s thoughts to the reader. It’s almost like the character speaking to the reader, but without explicitly breaking that “fourth wall.” Use these techniques to make your inner monologue every bit as distinctive and consistent as your outer dialogue.

Dialogue is a very powerful tool for showing character. It pays to get it right. Dialogue that really sparkles is a joy to write and a thrill to read. But wooden dialogue that clanks like tin in the ear only shows the reader that your characters weren’t real enough to you. In which case, why should they be to the reader?

< Back to part 1 | Next: part 3, mannerisms >

December 03, 2009 21:08 UTC

Tags: character, revision, dialogue, distinctive, consistent, highlighter, spreadsheet

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