River Teeth Revisted

Casting Characters: Introductions Through Observation in “Casting Lessons”

May 7, 2024

by Ethan Rice and Haley Stevens

“Egan’s line whirs across the pond, scratching along the water’s skin like a hatch of mayflies. Above the road, the night sky is purple and still and cold.” 

~ “Casting Lessons” by Leslie Jill Patterson (River Teeth 24.2, Spring 2023)

In “Casting Lessons” by Leslie Jill Patterson, we find ourselves on a ranch in Colorado, where Patterson, the only woman, is surrounded by a bunch of rowdy men. The first we meet is Egan Anderson, a fellow ranch hand with a love for fishing and a hope for love. By the end of the story, he has burrowed into our hearts. He speaks no lines, nor is there a window into his inner thoughts. We don’t know what he’s up to when he’s out of sight of the speaker. And yet it feels that we know everything about him through his actions and the way he is seen and treated by those around him.

This River Teeth Revisited will navigate the craft trenches of the short essay and investigate how the careful application of details and descriptions, especially in the essay’s beginning, shapes a character into someone who can capture the hearts of readers. 

Here is the beginning of “Casting Lessons”: 

Egan Anderson is a big boy. We say big not because Egan’s tubby or even tall, but big because the meat on his bones is so solid he can lift sofas, move refrigerators, trounce bullies without any help. And we say boy not because he’s the youngest hand at Eagle Hill Ranch (though he is) or because he’s incapable of keeping pace with the other trainers (we’ve already established he can kick some ass), but boy because, despite the rifle and bow he keeps well sighted-in and close at hand, what some might call the weaponry of manhood, there’s something adolescent about his laughter, which is less like rowdy time and more like giggling. Too, his apartment resembles the ramshackle hangout of a college kid: stacks of dishes tilt in the sink; dirty clothes lie rumpled on the floor; there’s only one chair to sit in; and his roommate doesn’t have a bed, just a mattress. In fact, Egan’s so young, by a decade or more, that he still misses college—hence, the Cornhusker’s T-shirt and ball cap (River Teeth 107). 

The first thing we learn about Egan is that he is described as a “big boy.” Peterson takes the opportunity to dispel the stereotypes that phrase may invoke, unpacking his physical appearance, skills, attitude, and living conditions to paint a multifaceted image before the story truly begins. Rather than merely a matter of size, he is “big” because he can “lift sofas, move refrigerators, trounce bullies.” This conveys not just physical strength, but emotional strength as well—Egan will protect the little guy.

The next descriptor is the sound of Egan’s laugh: “there’s something adolescent about his laughter, which is less like a rowdy time and more like giggling.” Here, Patterson uses Egan’s laughter to allude to generalized gender stereotypes. Men don’t “giggle,” boys do, and therefore, they call him boy. The act of “giggling” also suggests childhood innocence, which plays a bigger role later in the essay when Egan meets a girl capable of making him want.” This statement alone reveals a new depth to his character, peeling back a glimpse at his inner desires. The allusion requires Egan’s ‘wanting’ to be an unusual, noteworthy occurrence, adding an inferred history to what we have already learned about him. 

Additional details about Egan are revealed through a description of his apartment. We are told it resembles “the ramshackle hangout of a college kid: stacks of dishes tilt in the sink; dirty clothes lie rumpled on the floor; there’s only one chair to sit in; and his roommate doesn’t have a bed, just a mattress.” Rather than merely stating that the character is kind, messy, or shy, describing their environment forces the reader to interact with this character from the beginning of the essay and empathize with them. These concrete details create a more multifaceted image of Egan, allowing us to see his strengths and weaknesses. We want to root for him when the essay turns and Egan pursues his crush. 

Because this character introduction is at the beginning of the essay, we know quite a bit about Egan before we learn anything about Patterson herself. She could have simply said Egan was a messy kid, young, and not into girls, stuck in the everlasting bubble of his college years. Instead, she allows him to manifest into reality for her readers, before diving into the heart of the essay. Although beginning with character introductions does not benefit every essay, it is a great way to build empathy between your major characters and your audience, ensuring that readers will be invested in the outcome of your story, for many years to come.  

By the end of “Casting Lessons,” Egan is a fully realized character. Readers want to root for him and see him find love. When his crush doesn’t show for their date, our hearts break for him, and readers are left feeling bittersweet, embedding Egan in our hearts. Patterson accomplishes this through the power of word choice and revelations, trusting her audience to connect the dots until they, too, are standing knee-deep in a darkening pond, listening to the sounds of night and waiting. 


Too often, new writers fall back on dense exposition, heavy-handed dialogue or overwhelming internal monologue to develop their characters. In this exercise, we challenge you to create memorable characters without relying on these shortcuts.

Using “Casting Lessons” as inspiration, think of a time in your life where you witnessed something happen to another person important to you. How did your role as observer shape this event? What key details can you recall about this person? How did they act? Did they have any secrets? What did their facial expressions reveal about their inner thoughts and motivations (real or imagined)? Do they have habits? Nervous quirks? What makes this person unique? What is their environment like? Clean? Messy? Do they have nicknames? How do you act around this person? What are some key characteristics of your relationship with this person that form your interpretation of their character? Do they come to you for advice? Do you keep your distance? 

Let the answers to these questions guide you as you choose what to share about your character. Focus on what’s necessary to help the reader understand and bond with them. Tight confines often spark the boldest creativity. See what ways this approach can shape your essay by observing your character from the outside in.

Ethan Rice is a lifelong Hoosier who graduated from Ball State University with his Masters of English in May 2024 after receiving his Bachelors in Journalism/Media Writing from Taylor University. During his time at Ball State, he served as a River Teeth intern and a Graduate Assistant for the Voting System Technical Oversight Program. He has a passion for all writing, but especially scriptwriting. He plans to return to Indianapolis and continue working towards bringing his writing to the stage and screen.

Haley M. Stevens is a recent 2024 graduate of the Master of Arts English – Creative Writing Program at Ball State University. Beyond her role as Assistant Director of the Creative Writing Program and as a Graduate Assistant Instructor of English, she had the pleasure of serving as a River Teeth intern in Fall 2023. She was awarded the 2023 Dr. Frank Hrisomalos memorial award in Literature through the National Society of Arts and Letters. Next year, she will be serving as a 2024-2025 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at a University in Romania, researching Jewish History and developing a Creative Writing Program for Romanian writers interested in writing in or translating their work into English, all while writing her very own Jewish surrealist prose and poetry.

Photo by Henry Fraczek on Unsplash

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