craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman
In Big Rig by Louise Hawes, Hazel, call sign Hazmat, lives on the road with her dad in their big rig, Leonardo. Hazel’s mom, who died when Hazel was a baby, rides along in a box on the dashboard. But, as Hazel tells us on page one, this is not a ghost story. In fact, it’s the very opposite of a ghost story–it’s the story of Hazel encountering a lot of different people who are very much alive and engaging with their stories.
Hazel’s dad, who homeschools her on the road, is a former English professor, and he has told Hazel many times, she reports on page three, that it’s people who matter, not plot.
In the spirit of Hazel’s focus on people, I want to examine how Hawes establishes such a large cast of memorable characters. In both the opening and in introducing new characters throughout the book, Hawes uses voice, descriptions, and mood to establish characters quickly.
The Opening: Hazmat, her Mom and Dad, and the Truck
Let’s start with the opening. In the first two pages, we meet Hazel, her dad, her mom, and the truck. Hawes gets us into the story quickly by establishing Hazel’s voice from the first sentence:
My father drives an eighteen-wheeler. My mother died a week after I was born. And even though this is not a ghost story, the three of us have been on the road together for seven years.
In these three sentences, we get a lot of information: her dad is a truck driver and Hazel is on the road with him. Her mom died, but she is also on the road with them somehow. And this is not a ghost story. (Readers lean in to ask, so what kind of story is it?)
Hazel comes across as direct and no-nonsense. She does not feel like a narrator who is going to hide things from readers. We also know from Hazel’s tone that an incredibly sad thing that happened is not going to make this an incredibly sad book. In fact, Hawes doubles down on the not-sad in the next paragraph.
I don’t mean that Mom is some shapeless blob of ectoplasm or that she rides in her own seat, moves furniture around, and talks to us from the ether. I mean that, ever since I was little, Daddy and I have traveled with a green marble box with her ashes inside. I mean that my dad loves her so much, and I dream and think about her so often, it feels like she’s a part of our team.
Hazel describes her mom first by what she is not, and her description adds humor. In contrast, Hazel’s “is” description is touching but not overly sad. It’s a warm image of the family team.
The next section shows us more about Hazel and Dad–Hazel’s penchant for log-keeping, Dad’s views on technology, their disagreement over Hazel’s choice of an audiobook called Zombie Lullaby (too violent for Dad’s taste, fine for Hazel, but it gets boring), and Hazel’s own sense of her grown-up-ness–her ”birthday is less than six months away, which makes me almost twelve.”
Hazel then gives us a fairly straight-up description of Dad, but in the context of truck (who they call Leonardo).
When my father, who’s tall and mostly arms and legs, makes big I-know-what’s-best-for-you gestures and gets in my face like this, our truck’s cab feels way too small. Normally? It may not be wide enough for jumping jacks, but there’s plenty of room to read, sleep, and eat. Suddenly, though, I need more space; I want to look out the window, find tiny doll people riding in the four-wheelers down there, or watch the sky and highway streaming past like they’re caught in a windy river.
The description is buried in a dependent clause, and gives us a sense of the body making the gestures Hazel describes. As a bonus, we get to know the inside of the truck AND Hazel’s experience of the cab as too small sometimes and spacious enough other times. Her interaction with her environment tells us even more about her internal state and the way she sees the world–she has a view of the expansive world out there, and she observes it from the safe enclosure of the cab.
The mood here shifts far from Hawes’s hilarious descriptions of Zombie Lullaby and ectoplasm, and it shows us that Hazel can be contemplative too. That she has a whole range of emotions about herself, her family, and the world that we will get to see.
In this opening section, Hawes pulls together a number of tools to establish the characters and their relationships, especially Hazel and her internal life.
At other points in the novel, Hawes draws on these techniques to establish character’s quickly.
The first significant character they meet on the road is Willa, short for Willamette. Hawes introduces her through description:
The hitchhiker is a girl. Older than me, but still not an adult. . . . She’s wearing this stadium-sized tee with a rotted away picture of a band called Rageaholics.
Hawes also gives us Hazel reporting Willa’s actions and attitudes:
She follows us right up to the truck, then taps Daddy on the shoulder and gives him a sob story about her lonely father who’s waiting and waiting for her to come home. . . . every other word she says is ‘sir.’
When Hazel’s dad says they can give her a ride, Willa “doesn’t even seem surprised; she acts like she expected us to give her a ride. She climbs into the cab like she’s been doing it all her life, then plops herself on the bottom bunk behind our seats. ‘My name’s Willa.’ She grins at me the way people smile at little kids they think they can sweet-talk into liking them. ‘What’s yours?’”
Hazel’s perspective of Willa includes her dad’s surprise move of taking in the hitchhiker when their rule is no hitchhikers. She’s skeptical of the whole situation. And the details she includes–the straight description, the description of Willa’s actions, and Hazel’s interpretations of Willa’s lack of surprise and her smile give us a sense not only of Willa herself as a character, but also of the relationship between Willa and Hazel.
Mazen and Serena: mood
We hear about Mazen and Serena long before we meet them. Mazen owns the trucking company Daddy drives for. On page 5, we see Mazen as a protective figure, telling Daddy that it’s too dangerous to take Hazel on the road with him.
That warm, protective sense continues and shows how safe Hazel feels with Mazen and his wife Serena.
. . . for the first few years of my life, it was Mazen and Serena who mostly took care of me. . . . What I remember first and best is Serena’s voice putting me to sleep and the way the sun filled her and Mazen’s house every morning, like syrup poured all over a new day.
The memory and the image set a mood that Hazel feels with Mazen and Serena. It’s deliciously wonderful, and wonderful for Hazel that in the midst of her father’s heartbreak, she had a warm and wonderful childhood. It’s one brief line, but it clearly establishes the relationship between Hazel and Mazen and Serena.
Later in the book, Hazel and her dad meet a character who appears briefly, but is larger than life. Hawes uses action–Chilly pounding on the door of the cab, which you’re not ever supposed to do–and description–”a long blond waterfall of hair tumbling down her back”–but what’s most striking about Chilly is her voice.
Right when Hazel opens the door at her father’s instruction, Chilly starts speaking:
‘Hi, I’m Chilly, and listen, I know it’s like dinner time. I mean, no one else is around, and I’m sorry to get your draggy butts down here, but I need some frigging help, okay?’
She’s abrupt, brusque, and apologetically demanding. Her voice establishes her character before we get to the description of what she looks like. In two sentences, we know who Chilly is–at least enough to be intrigued and follow along with Hazel as she and her dad go see what’s so urgent.
Introducing new characters–and a lot of them in one book–takes skill. We often look at first pages and all they can include, along with strategies for how to get all the necessary components in. Hawes gives us a great example of establishing character and character relationships in the opening scene, through voice, dialogue, mood, and description.
She also uses these techniques, varying what she leads with, to quickly establish secondary and tertiary characters throughout the novel. We’ve looked at description, mood, and voice here. What other strategies can you find?
Now it’s YOUR turn!
- Read (or re-read) Big Rig, and identify all the different strategies Hawes uses to introduce new characters.
- Look at your work in progress and mark the places you introduce characters. Jot a note down of what strategy you lead with.
- Do you always use the same strategy? If so, experiment with trying different strategies. (Using the same one can start feeling stale after the first few times you use it.)
- Have you picked the most effective strategy for each particular character? (For instance, if you have a character with a fantastic voice, do you lead with it, or do you hold back on dialogue? Try leading with dialogue.)
In case you missed our interview with Louise Hawes:
For more from Louise, check out her contribution to our Sidewriting Takeover month!
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.