Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Building Colorful Characters

Aspiring & seasoned writers, this series will example ways to bring your characters to life.

Building Colorful Characters — the Literary Bones of a Story, Part 1

Perhaps if humankind weren’t so complex we wouldn’t need the doings—or undoings—of psychologists and psychiatrists, but just as our world continues to evolve, so do the characteristics and personalities of mankind. Therefore, writers have to continuously infuse their characters with the same stains that paint ordinary people in order to create believable fictional characters.

In our continuing pursuit to raise our fiction-folks to the level of realistic beings, we meet the colorful character “ Cal ” on a day that could be today and a place that’s near everyone …

The walk from the elevator to his office had Cal wheezing. The receptionist said, “Good morning, Mr. Ashton.” She didn’t look up from her computer screen. Her voice was colorless. The way she said “Mr. Ashton” always grated on his nerves. No doubt she’d be jumping up with an ingratiating smile for one of the consultants who worked with the company’s clients. The clients dealt only with the personable, attractive consultants and didn’t realize that it was the squints like Cal that actually did the work. But the receptionist knew. She had some nerve snubbing him. He was ten times as smart as she was and made a lot more money.

Cal smoothed his hair from his forehead and moved past the young woman into the narrow corridor that ran to the tech department, a huge room intersected with numerous cubicles creating a maze.

“Hey, Stanley ,” Cal called through an opening he passed. A grunt was his only reply from the darkened room. Stanley was already deep into his codes and programs. He probably wouldn’t emerge for hours.

Some of the other techs greeted Cal , but he gave brusque responses. Cal got impatient talking with any of them. A bunch of brownnoses. None of them had anywhere near his IQ. He and Stanley were the highest-level programmers in the company. Cal sometimes wondered about Stanley ’s IQ but had never asked. Not that it was important.

Cal went into his cubicle, the biggest in the section. Dropping his briefcase on the desk, he eased his bulk into the big armchair behind the desk with a relieved groan. A trickle of sweat trailed down his temple. Yeah, he needed to lose some weight. His doctor nagged him about it all the time. Cal was tired of the man’s obnoxious, condescending manner. He’d lose weight when he was good and ready. It wasn’t like he was committing a crime. He just liked to eat.

Cal cast a furtive look at the opening of his cubicle to make sure no one was nearby. Then he popped the snaps on the briefcase. Inside was a large, foil-wrapped plate. Yeah, breakfast. The scent of his mom’s sausage and potato and egg scramble drifted up to his nostrils with sensual enticement. For the first time since he’d left home this morning, a smile curved Cal ’s lips.

This author has painted a clear, brain-thumping description. Your memory draws you a familiar picture of a male who enters an office environment, the people he interacts with, and the way he probably looks and feels. You taste the atmosphere.

Here’s who and what I see: an overweight, late-30ish white male wearing a white shirt and black tie that’s tucked into a pair of black pants that supports a growing gut. This character trudged into the office with a black briefcase stiffly by his side: the picture of an unhappy, arrogant, childlike, sweaty male who still lives at home with his mother and is still very pampered by her. This character lacks a social life so he throws himself into his work. He wants desperately to be liked, but feels snubbed by those he knows isn’t as smart as he. His hurt feelings are soothed by the props of food that he often indulges in, even against medical advice. For him a day begins, extends, and ends with the comfort of food and work.

How about you, what do you see? Readers, can you hear the character’s body language? Writers, does the character’s actions rhyme with his depicted personality? There is certainly room for conflict as this story builds with the way Cal and his co-workers perceive each other. Do you think Cal is in competition with Stanley , with whom he identifies and against whom he secretly compares his abilities? Also, how colorful would Cal ’s attitude become if his coveted breakfast didn’t agree with his agitated system, or if he receives numerous unwanted interruptions? All these imaginative projections derive from a few clear paragraphs that nudge your curiosity. This only happens when the characters remind us of people we already know or if the writer has shaped our vision to picture and identify with them.

This scenario is the perfect example of a believable character and “Show, Don’t Tell.” We’ve extended our probe into:

Personality/Identity—depicting a character’s traits and psyche
Body types—subtle, physical descriptions

We included:

1. Body language

2. Arrogance

3. Guilt

These important elements were demonstrated when:

1. We were shown the character’s personality through learning Cal felt smarter than all his co-workers and shunned at the same time.

2. Picturing Cal “ease his bulk” into the big armchair behind the desk with a relieved groan gave vision to his body type.

3. Cal ’s wheezing—body language—depicted a possible medical problem brought on also perhaps by excess weight, lack of exercise, or respiratory problems.

4. The character’s brusque—or abrupt—responses and feeling that his co-workers were “A bunch of brownnoses” and believing his doctor was obnoxious with a condescending manner because of his medical advice indicated arrogance.

5. We learn Cal knows his eating habits are wrong and feels guilt when the author tells us that he “cast a furtive look at the opening of his cubicle to make sure no one was nearby.”

Like our guest character Cal , don’t we all do things that seem of no significance but actually make us unique and complex? When writers touch a familiar place in us, show us ourselves in others, we continue to turn the pages of the journey we have become engrossed in.

Drop me a line or our guest author and leave your comments and suggestions about what we’ve discussed so far.

Our guest contributor this month is seasoned author Andrea Jackson, also known as “The Paperback Diva.” She is the contributor to two anthologies, a short story writer, and author of three books with Who’s That Lady? being her latest work. Contact Andrea at:

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

I hope now you’re all feeling stamped by a few more traits of a memorable and believable fictional personality.

Pens up! to building colorful characters the write way.

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