Tuesday, July 13, 2010

COLUMN: Building Colorful Characters

Building Colorful Characters—
The Literary Bones of a Story, Part 7

Wordsmiths, if asked the following, what would your answer be—Fourth of July or crickets, electrifying sparks or sheer boredom? No, these are not dating questions. Instead, we’re determining which of these impressions your characters are making when they enter the room. The room, in this sense, is your readers’ mind. Your readers’ mind is the entertainment area you have rented for as long as or as short as you engage their attention. Are your characters holding a party—or a funeral? Will your readers allow you to enter their “room” again—or bar you forever?

As we’ve discussed earlier, creating characters that dance to a colorful tune for your readers’ eyes and emotions are an important part of what makes an entertaining story. We’ve also examined many ways in doing this, as there are no limits and many formulas to this tonic of literary pleasure.

Using the element of surprise with a character’s behavior or decision patterns is one way to keep our readers from yawning or hearing subliminal crickets chirp during our creations. Transforming a character with a drab or subservient personality into a feisty or domineering position can liven things up in any saga.

For example one, let’s create a familiar scenario but put a twist to it. Let’s use a mid-fiftyish Hispanic male with bad skin, cheap office attire, toting geeklike expressions. This meek, humble, and dedicated employee has been working at his job for twenty-nine years. As a family-man, he’s looking forward to retiring in a year and enjoying the benefits he’s loyally worked for all these years. One morning, right after a company meeting, unexpectantly, he’s given notice that the company is downsizing and he will be let go immediately with only severance pay. His immediate supervisor is given the unpleasant task of making this delivery to him as the company’s haughty CEO looks on and a few other sympathetic employees and coworkers silently pepper the room. Rightfully so, and certainly in this hurting economy, the employee grimaces inside, thinking of his home, car, family, and other obligations that have just been adversely affected.

As his silent internal inferno erupts, his attention aborts from listening to the lengthy explanation dripping from the lips of his soon-to-be ex-employer. The employee makes the decision to take matters into his own hand. No longer thinking rationally, he bum-rushes the exit doors to the conference room, taking everyone hostage but outwardly remains very calm while making his demands for a changed and upgraded decision. Coworkers and his immediate supervisor are shocked by his behavior, yet don’t feel endangered, knowing him to have always been a peaceful man and a team player. They can understand his feelings and have always respected him as a person, so they all sit as ordered in silence, hoping that he will change his mind and return to reason.

The CEO, however, not really knowing the employee other than occasionally seeing him meekly work in his tiny cubicle, doesn’t take him seriously and begins to taunt him with a cocky tone. With the passing of time, some coworkers ask for bathroom privileges and are granted them. The employee makes it known to everyone that he wants them to be comfortable until this “thing” is played out to his liking. Outside the company’s building, the police and crowd intensify. Daylight decreases, the CEO’s annoying words increase, and the telephone rings continuously in the conference room as the police hope to negotiate a life-saving deal. The situation begins to wear on the employee’s nerves, and he begins to realize that his circumstance needs a drastic change in order to get better, quicker results.

The employee politely grants a third bathroom break to a male employee who he has worked side by side with for many years. In fact, he also allows him to answer the telephone and request the police bring food and drinks for the hostages. But when the police ignore the request and only ask the coworker if everyone is safe, the coworker confidently answers yes—but is then stopped short by a barrage of bullets ripping through his back at the hand of the frustrated employee. The atmosphere has now changed, the CEO is shocked into silence, the respect from the employee’s coworkers vanish, and fear tightly clutches everyone’s heart now. The coworker lays dead with bright red blood pooling around his convulsing body, the police hear screams, then silence reigns as the phone conversation is abruptly disconnected, and the character’s personality and perception has been changed for all to see.

Do you think everyone, including the reader, views this character differently now? No longer is he a drab or background character. He is now in charge, very colorful, and at the front of the reader’s room, who waits to see what door the disgruntled employee steps through next.

For example two, imagine a serial killer who relentlessly and brutally murders prostitutes and pimps, yet he religiously wears all white and an expensive cross hangs around his neck. He also enjoys visiting a Catholic church whenever he can, to kneel and pray for the absolution of his sins. Does not this contrast in behavior and personality pluck a unique type of character from the literary tree? While this scenario could be considered strange and not the usual type of situation or story line, it does fall into the category of “it-could-happen.” Therefore, not only is the character colorful in its right, but also the story line as well. Surely there’s enough footage here to have fun with and keep the “room” of our reader very occupied with nail-biting attention.

In this example, I’ve said very little about this character or his background. But I’ve given you enough information so you can use your own imagination to take this character and story line to colorful heights.

Sometimes in our creations, less is more, yet, the intensity and possibilities are largely seen and felt. Too, a writer must also remember that the road must be paved with some reason or rhyme of why a character has crossed over into a different personality behavior or pattern. Otherwise, the change will come off unrealistic and unbelievable. An intriguing story’s plot or twist can get lost if the character delivering the blow is not wielding the sword of “it-could-happen” effectively.

So, while working on that next piece intended on keeping your readers turning pages for hours on end, remember: Fourth of July or crickets, party or funeral? This type of concentration will surely get you booked back into those rooms of your fans every time without reservations.

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.LuLu.com/RachelBerry & http://www.rachelberry.webs.com/

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