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Monday, January 11, 2010

A Matter of Character

If it’s a story, it’s about people. In writer parlance, the people in your stories are characters. You've heard that your characters should be fresh, surprising and believable. That’s a pretty tall order.

Making up a character from scratch requires a fertile imagination, and few writers are good enough to do that regularly. However, you seldom need to create characters from scratch. Give yourself a head start by building your characters based on people your already know. This is the way most writers do it most of the time.

The more closely you observe someone, the better you understand their characteristics. Sometimes you get lucky, and life forces you to observe a potential character. For example, you have to put up with your relatives. Your parents, in-laws, brothers, sisters and cousins intrude on your life and force you to deal with them. The time you spend your dorm roommate, drill sergeant, cellmates, teachers, and bosses is involuntary as well.

If you don’t like the people you must deal with, you watch them closely, paying particular attention to their quirks and foibles. The things that stick in your mind will allow you to write about your your character with depth.

Here’s an exercise designed help you get a handle on a particular character. At the top of a fresh sheet of paper write the name of your character. Now make a list of your character's background and habits. To get you started, answer these questions about your character.

1. Where and when was your character born?
2. Where, when and how does she die? (It doesn’t matter if she meets her demise many years after this story ends.)
3. What does she do for a living?
4. Is she in love with anyone?
5. Does she drink coffee, tea or neither.
6. Do her shoes come from K-Mart or Prada?
7. Does she drive an SUV or a Prius?
8. Does Saturday night find her at the symphony or the monster truck rally?
9. Does Sunday morning find her hung over, at church or both?
10. Is breakfast bacon and eggs or a granola bar?

You should continue this process until you have a very clear picture of your character. Since you started with a real person to create your character, your character will likely be believable. With enough details you should be able to make the character fresh and surprising.

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