Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Column: Building Colorful Characters

Building Colorful Characters

Part 6

Babies are created from the DNA of two people. Each unique person takes certain traits, personalities, hair color, facial and body structures, and so much more from their parents and ancestors. The same is usually administered by a writer when he or she creates their literary babies. When we build our characters, we take their DNA from ourselves, people we know, see, read about, and mentally create. This freedom turns out to be as mild or as elaborate as one wants.

So, what’s your intentions when you set out to create your babies? Suppose you had the opportunity to bring those characters to life, even if just for a day, how perfect and believable would you want them to be when they’re viewed by others? There are a few simple things that we take for granted that make an excellent template for creating believable and colorful characters.

Start by asking yourself what kind of people you enjoy being around. Why do I ask that? you say. Because as writers, we are told to write about what we know. Part of what we know are the people around us—the good and the bad. Picturing the pleasant people in your life and jotting down what makes them who they are gives us the ability to make them believable and add colorful imagination without really starting from scratch.

So why not start with the pleasant? Think about your favorite uncle, aunt, friend or
coworker. Perhaps it’s your mother or father, son or daughter that makes you smile, and you’d enjoy spreading their DNA freely for all to see. Think about what makes them dear and memorable to you.

Is it the way they walk? If so, do they do it with a stride, sway, limp, slump, or dance in their step? Are they pigeon-toed? Do they have a slew foot or club foot or are flatfoot? How about bowlegged or knock-kneed? Maybe spindly?

Perhaps it’s a certain person’s physique that pleasures your memory. Is he or she tall, short, fat, skinny, cadaverous, flabby, top-heavy, flat, globular, beer-bellied, busty, or have a chiseled abdomen?

Of course, many of us are remembered by our voice and tone. What kind of voice grabs your attention the most? Is it one that’s cultured, husky, hoarse, flirty, deep, powerful, feeble, robust, quivering, velvety, sexy, or squeaky?

Now, decide if this person is intelligent or ignorant. Or perhaps boring or eccentric? Is your character ladylike, charming, polite, smooth, gentlemanly, warm, friendly, or funny?

Of course, if we dip into the DNA of someone you least like, think about their characteristics as well. What bugs you the most about them? Are they two-faced, fraudulent, backstabbing, loud, gossipy, rude, phony, sneaky, evasive, self-centered, power-hungry, or sinister?

What values do you want your literary baby to possess? Could it be atheist, honest, religious, self-righteous, chaste, upright, churchy, never goes to church, thinks people who smoke or drink are evil and are on their way to a fiery suite in hell reserved for them?

Are you birthing a likable baby? Then imagine someone who’s playful, carefree, silly, relaxed, childlike, lighthearted, easygoing, or good-humored.

Most people have habits of some sort, or vices. Will your character be an alcoholic, a chain-smoker, a light smoker, dysfunctional, phobic, paranoid, in denial about their substance abuse, hard-working, or a stiff?

How do you envision your character dressing? Practical, sexy, religious, clean and neat, starchy, drab, conservative, over-the-top?

Do you see how much DNA we can extract from people already around us? And really, we’ve just scratched the surface. Now, let’s just knit a few of these cells together and see what kind of people materialize.

Let’s start with a female, and for this exercise, we’ll be void of the usual physical traits we normally mention. And as a matter of fact, you’ll see that without even stating your character’s hair color, eye shape, width of mouth, skin tone, etc., just by putting together other cells of their DNA, you will already create in your mind what they probably look like.

So let’s make her short, bowlegged, and top-heavy with a loud, flirty voice. She’s intelligent and a staunch atheist. At times, she’s gossipy but good-humored and easygoing. Let’s make her a chain-smoker that likes to dress sexy. Sound like anyone you know? Can you see her?

Now it’s time to pull together a male character. How about a tall gentleman with a husky voice, very smooth and gentlemanly—because he’s sneaky and self-righteous. You’ll never catch him in church, but he religiously gossips. He’s an alcoholic, a chain-smoker, and a smart dresser. Can you picture him too?

Of course, you can. Both characters can be easily imagined and their sum taken from those around us or from our vivid imagination. And if they can be imagined and envisioned by you, then they are real, believable, and colorful characters that your readers will envision as well.

But on the other hand, if we’re not conscious of our selections and DNA matches by putting certain wrong cells together with our characters, the character portrayal won’t rhyme cohesively, and the believable vibe will surely be lost.

For instance, our female character seems to pop as funny-loving, brave, and a bit rough around the edges. If we take our short, bowlegged lady and turn her from top-heavy to flat-chested, that would still be believable. But if we say she’s good-humored, yet, turn around and make her do things so that she appears shy, rude, holier-than-thou, or very religious, that would take her out of character in our mind’s eye.

And what about our male child? I don’t know about you, but when we created his DNA, I saw him as a con artist in the making. But if we infuse him with being inarticulate, easily fooled, a drab dresser, and a person who sulks and mopes around, we lose interest in him as such, because at the very least, we see con men as self-assured, debonair, shrewd, and creative.

This type of coupling could go on forever, but I’d like to see you gather the recipe of people who already excite or irritate you. Stirring the soup with this kind of recipe can always be the easiest way to call up your characters and allow them to make a believable appearance.

Who do you know that’s sensational? What living being works your last nerve?

Describe these people as characters, infuse their DNA, switch around and play with a few cells, and watch what believable and colorful characters are born.

Wordsmiths, remember you can 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.LuLu.com/RachelBerry & http://www.rachelberry.webs.com/

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Missy said...

O-M-G this article has been one of the best I've read in a LONG time. I pray everyone reads it. I can tell you this I will be spreading the word. I can think of several folks who would benefit from this article.
Thanks so much for sharing...

Rachel Berry said...

Thank you Missy,

You are appreciated!

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