In this From the Archives, Shannon Phillips returns to “A Sick Child” by Dustin M. Hoffman, published in early 2019, to explore the power of the introduction and how to craft a unique character that resonates with readers.
Dustin M. Hoffman’s “A Sick Child” is the contrast of a fairytale the same way every photo has a negative. Hoffman’s piece tells the tale of Naomi, a girl who grew up visibly ill and imposingly disfigured. In a village riddled with a plague, everyone wonders how a sick child grows to adulthood while able-bodied villagers continue to die. Naomi lives with a swarm of magpie birds as her companions and is a spectacle and source of mysticism for the village. It’s in her inability to die that the villagers seek their own defense against the plague ravaging their small town. Desperation paves their road to finding the answer to cheating disease and mortality. Eventually, the villagers get their wish—at a cost.
With this backdrop, what can we learn from Hoffman’s story?
How to write a captivating introduction
Every writer has experienced the intimidation of a blank page and the crushing pressure of writing a great introduction. The beginning of any story is a make-or-break moment. It’s where your reader will decide if they want to read your story or move on. How to write a great introductory paragraph is an essay all its own. For now, let’s consider why Hoffman’s introduction works.
“Naomi was a sick child, she was told. From birth, her mother and father bid her safe travels to the afterlife every time they lowered her shriveled infant body into the cradle. She’d surely die of the plague, like most of the village did. She’d die fast as any, they told her, for her sick stretched down to the bones. Probably deeper—a crippling, blackened snarl shooting straight from her soul. So, she learned to walk counting to last steps, learned to talk in rasps and coughs. She leaned into a limp, and by thirteen she hobbled to the swamp and mingled with the toads. She’d lie on the soft loam and let them croak atop her bare feet and arms and face, and when warts sprouted by the dozens, she wasn’t unpleased. The villagers were sure the plague had finally taken hold, bursting through her skin.”
Hoffman wastes no time introducing his main character, Naomi, and the predicament she faces. In a piece that relies on its fantastical nature and tone, Hoffman gives unique details the reader needs to formulate a vision of this character: a girl with sickness down to the bones, a limp, a teenager that seeks the solidarity of a swamp rather than open fields. Even if we can’t clearly see her, we can feel her and her struggle to function through mundane tasks, which can be far more effective so early on in a story.
This introduction is reminiscent of a childhood fable taking me by the hand and whisking me off to a world the author constructed. Hoffman’s tone grips the reader and makes me want to read the next paragraph, because hidden within Hoffman’s tone is the flow. Beneath the language is a string Hoffman weaves through each sentence to pull the reader along. Once a writer has established tone, they’ve established expectation. It leads to a careful balancing act of maintaining consistency yet achieving surprise in an author’s narrative, which Hoffman constantly does throughout this piece.
Lastly, information distribution here is critical. How much will leave your reader overwhelmed? How little will leave your reader bored? At first glance, Hoffman’s paragraph may feel a bit fast-paced. We’ve been told Naomi’s tale from birth to thirteen years old but Hoffman presents the information in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming. The reader is being given character background but mostly, Hoffman is feeding the reader an idea, the foundation this story is built upon. A sick girl, who despite her illness, survives. It’s a clever trick that Hoffman magics before the reader’s eyes within nine sentences.
Creating a unique character that resonates
We love things that beat the odds. A flower growing from the concrete on the freeway divider. The snail you spot slithering across a pathway with heavy foot traffic. A sick child, destined for death but lives, despite everything holding them back. There are elements in all of these that resonate with the determined, rebellious spirit within every human being.
Naomi isn’t treated cruelly by the villagers. They value her abilities, her mysticism, but not her humanity—and for this reason, she’s held at arm’s length. What could clearly be interpreted as the beginnings of a villain’s tragic backstory, “A Sick Child” turns out to be a demonstration of the human spirit’s perseverance to be loved and accepted.
“Naomi hardly hissed when they cauterized her thigh nub with their finest hatchet head. After all, at least none of her magpies had been injured. After all, she’d always been sick. A scorched stump couldn’t harm her blackened soul.”
In this piece, we rarely get these in-the-moment scenes with Naomi, but when we do, they’re incredibly impactful and telling of her character. Moments after her leg has been amputated, her concern is for the magpies. Hoffman takes this opportunity to show the sad nature of her mindset as an individual raised in an isolating environment. Naomi doesn’t want anyone to feel pain like she does and despite her caring heart, she perceives herself as the villagers do–corrupted and corroded.
Hoffman also does a great job of using characterization through action. How a person acts is telling of who they are as an individual. When Naomi is laughed at, she laughs with them. When Naomi is shunned by the women of the village, she still aids them when they come to her. Repeatedly, Naomi is given every opportunity to be a villain. Instead, Hoffman writes Naomi as a strong individual who knows what she is, and instead of giving in or being cruel, allows it to make her stronger.
“She passed by windows, always empty, and saw only her reflection. She used her fingernails, grown long as talons, to etch her own hideous portrait into each pane. Eventually, the entire village brimmed with her scowl, with her pleasure.”
By the end of Hoffman’s story, Naomi uses her most traumatic experience—the loss of her magpies—to become stronger in every way. The reader watches Naomi harden throughout this piece, but Hoffman shows mental strength is not synonymous with cruelty.
Characters are humans—they’re complicated and they’re ever-changing. Hoffman created a character who spit in God’s eye and never let her illness or her place in society corrupt the good heart housed within. She embraced who she was, found peace in the role she was given, and used it to her advantage in a world that made her the butt of a joke.
Using details where they matter
Every writer knows the terms “abstract” and “concrete.” It’s the difference between reading a detail on the page versus feeling it. Detail is everything in a story and Hoffman does a great job of using them in all the right places. Not only are they used correctly, but effectively.
Hoffman’s writing is a perfect push and pull between being lost in a fictional world and feeling sensations in reality. Great writing finds a way to reach through the page and make you flinch. In A Sick Child, Hoffman didn’t create a character that was simply sick. Naomi is visibly unwell in a way that disrupts the reader’s expectations. The following are just a handful of examples of Hoffman’s ability to write details in a way that appeal to the five senses—pleasant or not:
“Their claws hooked her skin and drew blood, and she waited for them to mince her body into carrion. Yet still, sickly Naomi didn’t die. Instead, eggs hatched in her arms.”
“Her hands blistered and then hardened into knotted leather.”
“…she shaved her scalp and tattooed there a maze so intricate only two women and one man had ever traced with their fingertips a correct path from her left ear to right,”
“…she’d abused her teeth so cruelly that only seven remained, as yellowed as corn kernels.”
“Naomi’s sickness fascinated, and her breath always smelled of peppermint and dirt and smoke.”
Hoffman uses description and detail where it’s necessary. We don’t know the color of Naomi’s hair but we know it’s molten. We don’t know her eye color but we know one is missing. Details matter where they matter and it’s the writer’s job to determine which ones stay and which ones go. It isn’t detrimental to the story that the reader doesn’t know the name of the village, the gory symptoms of the plague ravishing the village, or what Naomi’s shop looked like. The lack of these details isn’t a deal breaker and doesn’t affect our enjoyment as readers. Everything you need to know is put there by Hoffman.
As writers and readers, it’s important to consume content that challenges or contradicts the norm to ensure that writing evolves and stories continue to inspire and surprise us. A lot can be learned and enjoyed from “A Sick Child.” It teaches us that contrasting elements work and that to have beautiful writing, you do not need to write about something beautiful. All of this and far more is executed throughout this piece while still maintaining a low word count for a quick and easy read.
by Shannon Phillips