Tuesday, March 09, 2010
Building Colorful Characters
Building Colorful Characters – The Literary Bones of a Story, Part 3
Picture this: You step into a neighborhood red brick building, the home of a popular hiring agency, with intentions of acquiring an advertised job. You walk into a well lit office atmosphere speckled with cubicles, file cabinets, plants, and professional-attired employees posed behind office desks and ringing telephones. Behind you sit a row of bored people with pencils and clipboards hovering over a detailed three-page application for the very job you’re there to apply for. Not only are you not looking forward to the redundant pencil-push required to fill out the lengthy application, but you’re pretty tired of the huge competition for each available job. So, with this in mind, you check in, receive your paper-weapons, join the pencil crowd, and line up your written strategies against them—the job enemies. As a job seeker you have to be the best, you must stand out from the rest; therefore, the description of yourself must colorfully qualify you and supersede all the rest.
A story’s characters face the same stage whenever they are created. The writer is the “hiring agency,” and each character’s part in the story is the “job.” Every character is in huge competition to stand out as the best, or to at least win a lasting memory in the story they show up in—therefore, an invisible application is taken by the writer that places his or her characters in the mind of a reader as a good job or a forgettable one. It’s all in the development derived from the initial character application.
Beyond the standard reference to a character’s name, age, height, weight, race, hair and eye color, and body type, writers need to dig further into the knowledge and psyche of their characters in order to present them in their full glory. Let’s extend our previous list of suggestions of how to breathe colorful life into our characters.
Perhaps a prepared sheet of paper entitled a “Character Application” can be copied and used for each primary character before or during the first draft. This could be kept nearby for easy reference whenever needed. The application can also include: hair style, physical condition, chronic illnesses, mental health, distinguishing features, physical imperfections or disabilities, characteristic gestures, ethnic group, religion, family background, years of schooling, college studies & degrees (if applicable), grades, special training & skills, talents, areas of expertise, past and present occupations, military experience, short- & long-term goals, personal and professional needs, personality type, quirks, introvert or extrovert, IQ, temperament, methods used to handle embarrassment, anger & grief, negative traits, good & bad habits, prejudices, pet peeves and gripes, painful things that exist in their life, arrest record, opinions (about abortion, homosexuality, crime, religion, and politics), fears, phobias, hobbies, interests in sports, favorite TV shows & movies, speech style, clothing style, pets, favorite foods, favorite drinks, alcohol consumption (if applicable and how many), favorite attributes in the opposite sex, sexual turn-ons & turn-offs, number of friends, best friends, known enemies, most critical event that molded their life, neighborhood, kind of car owned, home, major & minor life problems, and lessons learned.
While this suggested list might seem a bit too elaborate—or too much trouble—knowing as much about our characters as possible brings them to a believable life and helps curb the chances of orchestrating them to do things out of character. Keeping a written record of each character and their traits also helps a writer not to create repetitious characters during another project, unless done intentionally. Let’s take a stab at implementing a few more of the aforementioned character traits from our extended list into our ongoing character.
When last we visited our first character—homeless vet January Frittmier, he was in line at a Chicago soup kitchen demanding his evening ration …
Having finally made it up to the serving line, January Frittmier, better known as Auggie, reached for a plate of mashed potatoes being handed to him by the woman behind the counter. Auggie grunted, looked around, and twisted his mouth. He sharply gave the Mexican woman an up-and-down frown with his eyes. He hated foreigners, and especially women who chopped off their hair. The stout, tall woman retracted her tattooed hand and mirrored his agitated emotion. Her pierced eyebrow arched in question, asking silently for Auggie’s immediate decision.
This one, he thought, looks like one of them lesbos, another type of entity he hated to deal with. He made up his mind he didn’t want anything tainted by her touch and threw up his palm towards her and moved vigorously forward, muttering under his breath. The next food-server was a slim black boy of medium height wearing yellow plastic gloves and kinky blond hair. January chewed his tongue and beckoned for the plate holding a chicken leg that the boy presented. He continued down the line, his eyes lighting up at some of his favorite foods being rationed to him. The steaming, foiled, corn-on-the-cob; hot, soft, buttered biscuits; and chocolate cake cooled his heated spirits as his mouth watered in anticipation. Once through the line, January stood searching the huge eating area for a free spot next to someone he could temporally tolerate. Moments later, he zoomed in on a table of old vets laughing and talking in between bites of food. January headed toward them.
“Auggie, you old fart,” said a pale and frail man who waved him to be seated.
Immediately, the guy’s hand flew to his cadaverous chest, and he began a two-minute wheezing cough.
Another seated old black gentleman commented affectionately, “For crying out loud, Willard, the food’s not that bad, man.”
January, shaking his head and clicking his cane, made a spry U-turn to an unoccupied table in the corner. It was his belief that disease chose its victims by association.
“Cancer isn’t con-taa-gious,” Williard choked towards January. The group of men then quickly resumed their private gossip.
But once at his chosen seclusion, January became agitated by the food crumbs and spilled liquid that covered the table. Angrily, he raised his cane, kicked back the chair from under the table, and yelled for immediate service. A food service worker came running over and quickly contained the mess with apologies. January, however, continued to rant about the situation until someone seated nearby cursed a request for him to shut up.
January remained silent, unaware, though, that his face told of his soul’s turmoil. He swung his eyes periodically over at the table of loud-talking African American men that had boosted his silence. The muscle-bound crew all wore red scarves attached to either their clothing or around their necks. January hated weak men who only chose to build their bodies and not their brains. The once all-white neighborhood was going to hell as far as he was concerned and crawling with misfits. He feared that one day his disdain for them would provoke a war of a different kind than the one he fought on the bloody foreign battlefields. He prided himself in his four-year college education and military expertise that taught him to choose his battles and fighting tools. He made a mental note to call city hall and complain about the apparent gangs that were strong-arming their way into public domain using verbal and physical assaults. So what, he thought, if my message is embellished a bit. His space was being invaded, and war was always about tactics and strategy. The war was on!
January, however, didn’t notice the gang member staring at him coldly, who sensed his fear and disdain and was plotting a personal revenge shortly of his own.
The above information to our ongoing tale highlights and enriches the character’s persona of prejudice, phobias, temperament, education, and fears. Do you think these new revelations are true to his projected personality so far?
More than likely, each character applicant at every writer’s office of “character positions” is unique in mind, body, and spirit. Their jobs fill our pages and excite the tales we weave together for the hearts and eyes of our captivated audience. Portraying them as real and believable beings, unfortunately, is not always an easy job, but it is a satisfying job when our readers truly grasp their nature and personality and love or hate them for the people that we paint them to be.
We must ask ourselves as writers, will our audience, after reading the material we present them, allow our characters another chance with the “job” of occupying their time and mind space? Only a well qualified “applicant” will ever get the chance to apply again.
Don’t forget, Wordsmiths, Auggie is a freelance character, as will be all the characters born here. 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 Web site.
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.
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