Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Let there be Light! And Dark! In Your Cast of Characters

By Robyn Hood Black, @artsyletters

In last month’s post, I promised we’d tackle some more writing/art/poetry connections. I’ve been pondering the concept of positive/negative space (the terminology we’re taught in the Western, English-speaking world), which is really Notan (the Eastern idea of dark and light, where, as in the yin/yang symbol, both are equal players). I took a look at this concept in one of my early art blog posts, featuring the book, NOTAN – The Dark-Light Principle of Design by American artists and teachers Dorr Bothwell and Marlys Mayfield.

Many ideas spring to mind that could translate from pictures to words and story structure: pacing, variation, tension. But today I’d like to look at a very basic idea, the first exercise in the book, and how it might relate to characters. (Hang with me here – thanks.)

The opening exercise calls for the artist to cut up five black shapes and arrange them on a white background, making note of how composition choices affect the suggestion of movement, balance, symmetry and asymmetry, and the like. A pebble shape is used since it doesn’t call a whole lot of attention to itself in a group.

Thinking about this exercise, I couldn’t help noticing that the verse novel I was reading, Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle, has five main characters. If you are not familiar with Margarita Engle’s work, please get thee to some of her books post-haste! Engle is an internationally acclaimed poet, novelist and journalist (who helps train search and rescue dogs on the side!). Her writing is concise, clear, sometimes lyrical, and stunning. Her book The Surrender Tree – Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom (set in 1896) was a 2009 Newbery Honor Book, won the Pura Belpré Medal for Narrative, the Bank Street - Claudia Lewis Award and the Jane Addams Award that year, and was a Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year as well as a Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book - and that is just a partial list. Her many other books come with trails of awards. She’s a haiku poet as well – I told you haiku enriches your writing!

Hurricane Dancers, divided into six parts, is a story told through its five main characters. Individual poems are not titled, but the name of the speaker at the top of the page lets the reader know whose point of view we’re in.

It’s the early 1500s in the Caribbean. Main character Quebrado (the only one without a real historical counterpart) is half Cuban Indian and half Spanish, and finds himself a slave on a pirate ship. He survives a hurricane and shipwreck, as do Bernardino de Talavera, the ruthless captain, and Alonso de Ojedo, his injured captive, a brutal explorer who was among the first to capture Indians and sell them into slavery. (His poems brilliantly reveal his descent into madness, by the way.)

After the wreck, Quebrado is taken in and cared for by a community of Indians, and he befriends the chieftan’s daughter, Caucubú. She’s in love with young fisherman Naridó, and when the star-crossed lovers escape an arranged marriage for Caucubú by fleeing into the mountains, the villagers blame Quebrado and banish him.

I will not spoil the story for you except to say that the fates of these characters continue to be intertwined (even the two villains), and Quebrado must make some decisions that affect others and define who he is and who he will be.

Back to Notan. I decided to re-work that first exercise in the book but with each black blob-shape representing a character from Hurricane Dancers. Why? I just wanted to see how I responded to physical, tactile symbols of them - where I would put them on the page and how close to each other.

It was easy to assign Quebrado the largest piece and put that shape near the center. Next, I felt most connected to Caucubú, and arranged her shape directly across from Quebrado’s and about equi-distant from Naridó’s. What to do with those awful antagonists? I gave them the smallest circles (though your eye is drawn to a small shape if it’s in a group of larger shapes, right?). And then I found I couldn’t live with them as benign, rounded shapes. I cut a sharp protruding point into each one to symbolize their viciousness. It just made me feel better.

(For a terrific exploration of the psychological power of shape in visual art, see Molly Bang’s Picture This – How Pictures Work, first published in 1991 and now available from Chronicle Books.)

How will any of this help you with your current writing project? You could depart a bit from a strict attempt at Notan (creating visual balance between positive and negative shapes) and try something similar to this example, assigning a shape to each of your main characters. What shapes would you give them? How close or how far away would they be from other characters? What kind of energy would their spatial relationships suggest? (I’m not talking about doing representational, paper-doll cut-outs – but just focusing on the essence of each character.)

I have a completed draft of a middle grade historical novel, but it needs overhauling. I’ve been seriously thinking of trying it as a verse novel. The first thing I would have noticed if I had done this exercise early in the process is that I have WAY too many characters in it! Not that you need just five, of course, but in my project there would have been far too many shapes to cut out, diluting the impact of a cozier number - and causing potential confusion to boot.

One aim of Notan is to create a dynamic design, paying attention to the flow of space between objects. Who knows – if you devote a little time to its concepts, even just noticing examples in the world around you, perhaps your writing will become more dynamic as well!

Robyn Hood Black writes poetry, fiction and nonfiction for young readers from the foothills of north Georgia. Her books include SIR MIKE (Scholastic Library, 2005), and WOLVES (Intervisual Books, 2008). Her poems appear in THE ARROW FINDS ITS MARK (Roaring Brook, 2012), THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY FOR MIDDLE SCHOOL (2013) and THE POETRY FRIDAY ANTHOLOGY (2012). Her haiku have been published in leading haiku journals. She’s also just launched an art business with “art for your literary side” at


  1. I think my MC would be something like the jagged spiral you see in tie-dye. His partner would be the rounded arrowhead of a shield; that's the traditional symbol for a married man, and he's very traditional. The partner's wife would be a crown: she's calm, no-nonsense, gets stuff done, and is very caring. One villain would be a sword-cane, hidden villainy (not sure how that shape would translate...) And the other villain would be a chain: brutal, thuggish symbol of oppression.

    This is an interesting exercise! The cool thing is you made me stop and think of the essence of my characters. Did you use more abstract shapes for your people?

  2. Hi, Rachel - I love how you put such thought into what shapes your characters would be. I haven't yet done this for the story-in-need-of-overhauling I mentioned, but I do plan to - and for other characters in progress. Thanks so much for sharing your insights.

  3. This is a great exercise, I want to try it! The last one makes me think of dog paw prints and I always write about dogs :)

  4. Thanks, Charmaine. I had the same realization re. that looking like a dog print - I'm so canine crazy too, I figured it was probably subconsciously inevitable. ;0)