Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Column: Building Colorful Characters

Building Colorful Characters – the Literary Bones of a Story

If the entire world was colorless, just black and white, do you think your mind would be vibrantly-tickled by dreams? Could the lack of universal character negatively affect your character, emotions, and personality? I think so. Thank God for color. And thank God for people. As you know, people make the world go around. If they didn’t, writers would have a lot less to write about. So, when writing about these universal and unique individuals, a writer must breathe life into them through invigorating and distinguishing characteristics and personality. A writer must bring a character to vision; in other words make them colorful and believable, otherwise the reader will only see the black and white of the story, missing the brain tickle. Merely stating where a character lives, their name and a brief description about them won’t draw the reader into their world. The reader must taste and inhale what they see.

How many times have a person left their scent on your memory simply by how they were dressed, smelled, talked, walked or appeared? For the amount of time a reader spends engulfed in the world created by a writer they should be benefited by rememberable and brain-tingling characters. Getting to know your character before you introduce him or her to the world is very important.

Here are two of my suggestions of how to begin to breathe colorful life into your characters.

1. Make a list of things that make up this person such as, but not limited to: age, height, weight, body type, complexion, distinguishable facial and body marks such as tattoos and scars, likes & dislikes (pet peeves,) career and education, mannerisms, bad habits, style of dress, sexual preference, marital status, financial, religious, and political beliefs, speech patterns, memberships, parental-status, health conditions, etc.

2. Find a picture in a magazine, newspaper, or search on-line for people resembling close to your characters features and make a collage of them.
Of course you won’t be relaying all these elements of your characters to your readers, but this exercise and routine will help you know your baby exclusively, therefore aiding you in portraying them believable and true to character.

This month we meet colorful character January Frittmier retired Staff Sergeant from the United States Marine Corps, affectionately known to his few acquaintances as Auggie. Each month I’ll introduce a little more about him to you.

Frittmier’s a thin-lipped, man-of-a-few-words type of guy, with a bellowing German voice. His pale face is usually flushed by the red of anger or annoyance. His patience is usually low with civilian male adults and crying knee-babies. But even as a homeless vet, his hand is always saluted high towards a fellow Marine. Styling wind-bag cheeks and a Santa Claus beard, January’s cold blue eyes stare back at you through rounded spectacles. The scars of war manifest its curse in his limp and the clutch of his silver-handled cane. But war will never kill his father-instilled arrogance, or bend Frittmier’s proud round shoulders, for this five feet one giant daily displays his military pride with the layers of a Marine Corp baseball cap and insignia jacket blazing of his adopted country’s colors.

On any given day his habitual stripped shirt seems to creep up around his bulging middle that diet and sixty-five years have gifted him; exposing a roll of pale skin, and gapping from his belted, faded blue jeans. Still, January’s stance is strong, and uncaring of his wreaking body liniments and tobacco-breath. The crisp of day and dark hues of evening-fall usually find him grunting to himself, steps mimicking hiccups down the busy streets of Chicago until he reaches his one and only daily aspiration. So, on this day, with his tightened left fist that still marries a wedding ring to his widowed heart; we find dear Auggie in a long food line demanding his evening ration from a local soup kitchen.

Now tell me, do you visualize January? Though he hasn’t uttered any words yet, can you hear his voice or accent in your minds-eye? Can you smell his aroma or imagine the lash of his angry encounters? Do you know a bit about the “why” of his personality or his character? I hope so. I hope I have given you a small taste of a colorful and believable character.

Here’s what we know so far about our character:

1. He’s of German decent/white male
2. He’s sixty years old
3. Five feet six inches tall
4. A widower
5. Homeless
6. A retired Marine Corp Vet
7. He can be short tempered
8. Holds high regard to the military and fellow veterans
9. His hygiene and appearance aren’t flattering.
10. Eats his meals daily at a soup kitchen

Here are two of the areas we’ve covered briefly that attribute to building colorful characters:

1. Face & Body
2. Personality/Identity
Of course part of the glow of excellent storytelling and presenting colorful and believable characters are in “the showing” more than “the telling.” These examples and exercises are just to get those juices flowing.

Feel free to use Auggie in any of your projects; he’s a freelance character, as will be all the characters born here.

So now, aspiring writers and authors alike – start your engines. Rev up those computer keys. In one paragraph or two, birth your own colorful baby. Take threads from an uncle, next door neighbor, the check-out woman from your favorite grocery store, or that adult-faced ten year old that’s in your son’s class who you swear is an undercover old midget. Play around with complexion, eyes, face, and body types. We’ll get into more character detail next month.

Wordsmiths, I’d love to meet who you introduce into our imaginary world. E-mail me with your creations and I’ll post them here for all to meet and utilize. For your gifting I’ll also post a picture of your latest book and a link to your website.
Pens up to building colorful characters the write way!

Rachel Berry has been gifted by our creator to be many things; on the list of these blessings are daughter, caregiver, wife, mother, grandmother, sister, best friend, aunt, published author & poet, motivational speaker, radio talk show host, mentor, columnist and community leader.

She has been a government employee for 24 years.

Rachel is the founder and president of Black Pearls United INC. (an African American sister-circle) which was founded in 2000.

Berry is also an alumni member of Toastmasters International where she has earned her CTM and has been awarded as Toastmaster of the Year.

Rachel is proudly promoting her books 'From The Heart And Heat Of Me.' and her novel ‘Family Pictures:’ the family saga of two women with too many secrets and the up and down relationships they have with those people they call family.

To arrange speaking engagements e-mail her at admin@blackpearlsunited.org. For book signings please e-mail her at rachelwrites2@yahoo.com. To preview and buy her books please visit her web site at http://www.LuLu.com/RachelBerry
& http://www.RachelBerry.webs.com


Unknown said...

What an interesting article, thank you Ms. Berry for the education. As an avid reader I truly believe in character development and adding depth to the characters.

When I read I want to develop a relationship with the characters and watch them grow. I read a book many years ago about a career oriented protagonist who was having trouble in her marriage.

The author had this character doing and saying things that were out of character. Now I'm not saying that as people that doesn't happen, and that in some instances people don't take us out of character but this was WAY too much. As a result of that I have never read another book by that author.

Your article has definitely given a taste of color and helped us to see how important making character believable truly is.

Shelia G said...

This was a very informative article. I'll share the link with others.

Rachel Berry said...


Thanks so very much for your time and comments, writers need verbal readers like you. I agree with your thoughts, a bond with a book's characters enhances the journey. When you can properly envision that person - with your own touches included of course, the story becomes alive. As writers we all have a continued growing process - the more you write, the more you're right. Maybe in the future, and just for fun, you can check out that author's latest work to see if that dark shadow has now been colored a brighter shade of experience. You might me pleasantly surprised!

Rachel Berry said...

Sheila G,

Thanks for all you do!

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