Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Building Colorful Characters

The Literary Bones of a Story, Part 4

Groucho Marx, the Marx brothers, the Three Stooges, Betty Davis, Betty Boop, Evel Knievel, and the list of memorable names goes on and on. If not a fan, it’s likely you’ve at least heard their names and upon mention of those names, can picture in your mind’s eye the “why” of their fame. For, if nothing else, they all reign as “Colorful Characters.”

Memorable characters seize our minds for many reasons but usually stain us through their unique personalities, traits, appearance, antics, or vocal presence. Whether through slapstick humor, the power of penetrating eyes, clever wit, smooth coos, or daring antics, the aforementioned famed characters will track through our memories with their own splash of uniqueness. So, how will readers remember your characters? What long-term reminiscences will attach themselves to your creations?

The simple strategy of pairing various human characteristics with some creative challenges or situations can dress your characters in a different light. Our characters need not be eccentric to be considered colorful and distinctive, and familiar human traits work just as well with some creativity.

For example, if we pair a blind man with the talent of painting exceptional pictures or creating intriguing sculptures, the wonder factor kicks in for our readers and the character will court their hearts in a different way than an ordinary character might.

Now, let’s examine the possibility of a homeless-looking older male with a haggard and unkempt physical appearance wearing layers of dirty and ragged clothing, seen daily pushing a shopping cart full of his belongings through town. Definitely eccentric, yes? Well, what if this person was really well off and the owner of an abandoned estate in one of the best parts of the same town his confused mind has him stumbling through? Changes his persona a bit, right?

But with an ordinary character, unique personal traits or actions can make them more colorful. How about a young, single, female, high-school English teacher who lives alone in a well kept condo. Pretty ordinary, right? Well, what if we threw in a few creative traits such as: she lives with ten white cats and works two four-hour shift jobs because she compulsively has to take a shower after each time she uses the bathroom at home, and she refuses to use a public restroom?

Or, how about the “Tiger Lady” mentioned on several television programs around the country who once was a ravishing beauty that decided she wanted to look like an animal (a tiger) and underwent several plastic surgeries to obtain her new look? With her mission accomplished, to most of us, she now looks hideous. What if we took it a step further and made this character deeply religious, but because of her looks, became shunned by her church and community? What if she were someone who desired to work with small children in the childcare industry, but parents were against it in fear that she’d give their children nightmares? Perhaps her dream job is being a cosmologist, but no one will hire her because of her bold look. As a character, her journey through life and her fight for human/animal rights would make her a colorful character. As you can see, situations can make a character stand out as well.

Take the statuesque, green-eyed, honey-blond model with waist-length tresses, mile-high legs, and womanly curves who flavors the air with a little girl’s twelve-year-old voice. Before she speaks, she’s viewed as exotic—and then something diverse such as the lilt of her voice weaves her into a different category altogether.

Situations can color a group of characters for the roles they all play. For instance, let’s envision the tale of one man living with many wives on a remote compound with, say, sixty children he’s fathered between those wives. No matter how soap-sudsy clean they all look, their behaviors and environmental setup make them colorful creatures. Throw in the scenario that they are all homeschooled and go on to become lawyers, doctors, and other movers and shakers in their surrounding communities, and marry people of many varied but different nationalities dissimilar to their own make them wonder factors for our readers. How will their relationships work out? Do they have strange ways and habits after growing up in a secluded and controlled environment? Have they married outside of their nationality and culture as a form of rebellion against their upbringing? Reading how these characters’ lives unfold differently because of their early beginnings make them colorful characters because the reader is expecting a surprise or abnormal behavior or strange circumstances to eventually evolve.

A writer’s pen draws invisible expectations many ways. One way is through the lineup, or occurrence of events in a character’s life. If a situation causes a character to react differently than the average person, a character is deemed different or unusual.

Every churchgoer loves a preacher who can deliver a powerful and memorable message. But what if we make a well respected and gray temple-haired reverend deliver his best speeches in silk, sleeveless tee shirts coupled with a heavy-roped necklace, lots of wrist bling-bling, a glittering gold tooth, expensive high-top sneakers, and jeans while mellowing his thoughts through street rap? Indeed, a memorable situation and character, don’t you think? Wouldn’t you expect his congregation to be filled with young thugs whose presence would eventually eliminate the general population? The given situation brings about certain expectations to its readers that would signal more controversial circumstances to follow.

Envision two, old, widowed ladies with dyed blue hair and red-painted nails impeccably dressed who have been meeting every Monday for forty years at nine in the morning at the same courthouse just to sit and listen to the civil cases presented. Afterwards, a heavy but friendly discussion with opposing views over the same ordered dish is whispered between the two at a local IHOP.

These are just a few examples of how you can make ordinary people demonstrate unusual characteristics that make them colorful beings or characters. Implementing creative touches in your story’s location, characters’ lifestyle, career choices, or social networks also link your characters to unique and interesting literary fibers.
Thinking of your characters as varied specialty vehicles on display as they drive through interesting towns and locations with a crowd of observers lining the sidewalks will help you fuel their tanks with the gas that will speed them uniquely through the pages of your tale, while parking lasting memories on the minds of your readers.

Writers, my call to action to you this month is to create ordinary characters shadowed with unique physical, mental, or environmental circumstances that take them to another level of survival. Perhaps you could borrow from the presented examples, but I hope these models have sparked your own creativity.

Readers, do any of the aforementioned characters or situations excite your enthusiasm to see them in your next read? Drop me a line and let me know.
Wordsmiths, remember to e-mail me with your creations and I’ll post them here for all to meet and utilize. For your gifting, I’ll 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.

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.rachelberry.webs.com/

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1 comment:

Kate said...

What a great post. So few people think about all of the work it takes to develop a truly real character. I just read a book, Confucius Jade , that excelled at this. The author clearly took a lot of time to make everyone three dimensional and interesting. I would recommend it to anyone.

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