Thursday, February 14, 2008

My characters

It was really hard to do complete profiles of characters in 250 words. Here's what I submitted.

Anne Powell is 52 years old, 5’8” tall and of average build. Her light brown hair is beginning to welcome some gray strands to the mix and she considers her forming wrinkles badges of honor for a life well lived. Her grey eyes often look blue or green depending on what color she wears but they are always expressive despite her otherwise poker face. She walks two miles daily weather permitting. She’s frugally stylish.

Anne never married although she came close 4 different times. Her commitment issues stem from her parents nasty divorce during her childhood. She was a shy child and is still somewhat reserved until you get to know her. Her wicked sense of humor and frustrated desire to be an actress make her fun to be around and she has many friends and acquaintances.

Anne is quietly intelligent and despite her master’s degree, a battle with cancer caused her to rethink her priorities and she is now the executive assistant to the president of a large real estate company owned by a private family. She takes no crap from anyone but, because of her background in psychology, she is the office mother.

She has owned a fixer home for 12 years and lives comfortably with her semi-spoiled dog Belle. She is aggressively saving for her retirement and is financially sound. She is active in a local social organization and never bored. Anne is a natural leader although a somewhat reluctant one and she values her privacy.

Tim Gardner is 55, 6’0 tall and has a few extra pounds. His once dark brown hair is now mostly grey and his blue eyes sparkle with mischief. Thanks to his sisters and daughter he dresses well but usually exercise is walking to the mailbox or changing TV without the remote.

He’s outgoing and charming but his two divorces have made him wary of relationships so he spends his free time with friends and family including his son, two daughters and three grandchildren who think he’s God. Occasionally he forgets his age and decreased fitness by participating in football and soccer games after which heating pads and ibuprofen are required.

Tim has been a detective with the local police for 30 years – his first job out of college. He is serious and meticulous in what he does and has a reputation as a tough person to fool. The town of 50,000 doesn’t provide much opportunity to test his skills, but he enjoys his work.

Tim lives in a condo purchased 10 years ago after his last divorce. A maid service cleans every two weeks and little is done in between except loading the dishwasher. He usually eats out and his three sisters take turns doing his laundry. He could do it himself, but the system is working for him and so he takes advantage of it. Tim is involved in a local social organization and occasionally feels bored and restless.

Here's what my instructor said:

The purpose of this assignment is to give you the opportunity to think about how it is that characters are created so as to engage readers in their adventures. Readers are not interested in bland characters, so you want to try to come up with both external and internal traits that will cause readers to find them fascinating.

You’ve used some vivid details to describe Anne Powell; light brown hair with a little gray, grey eyes, walks two miles per day, stylish. She has never married but is she dating anyone? I’m wondering about her background in psychology, why with that, she ended up president of a real estate company. I’m not finding much in this profile that is really grabbing me. I’m not sure if you saw the three things in Lecture Hall that I’d be looking for in your profiles because I’m not seeing them here. Readers connect with characters who want something—desperately. What is it that Anne wants? Another thing readers connect with is a character’s fears—what does Anne most fear? Go underneath Anne’s surface—what’s there? The quirks, the passions, the longings, the dreams. What will make Anne memorable to the reader? You want to create a character your reader won’t forget.

I feel the same way about Tim—that he needs something to take him over the top and make him interesting. It’s up to you as the writer to find the traits in each of your characters that will bring your reader in and make her care about what concerns your characters in their stories. When you think about Tim’s appearance, can you give him something noticeable? A birth mark, scar, tattoo that will cause the reader to recognize him? What was outrageous about either of his divorces? What’s different about Tim as a detective? And I want you to ponder the same three questions that I asked you about Anne; what does Tim want—desperately? What is Tim’s biggest fear—both external and internal? What will make Tim memorable? Why are we going to care about this character?

She's right about all this, but how do you do it in only 250 words? I'm a little frustrated right now.


Precie said...

Oh, shoot...I again misspoke in the previous thread. I totally forgot about these profiles...I was thinking of the next session's create scenes that convey the characters you profiled. Shoot.

As to your question...My guess is that perhaps, instead of starting outside and working your way in (physical to emotional, past to present, etc.), you start at the heart of the character and the heart of your story. In some ways, I thought this exercise really required the writer to know a lot about the story even before writing it. Because one of the core questions of the story would be...How is this character tested and challenged? What will this character suffer and how will s/he handle it? 250 words, I would have excluded all but the most significant physical details. I probably would focus on character traits that have potential for conflict.

(I hope this won't sound strange or "show-off-y," but if you like, I'd be happy to share with you the responses I did for this assignment. I know I have them stored somewhere. I can't remember what the instructor's comments were, but I know I approached the assignment differently so it might just give you other avenues to explore.)

Precie said...

Oh, and please don't be discouraged! 250 is difficult. But now you have all this information to build from!

The Anti-Wife said...

I'd love to see your responses. YOu can either post them here if you want, or e-mail them to me.

There are 14 in my class and several of us asked for clarification from the instructor about this exercise so there's been a lot of confusion about exactly what we were supposed to do.

Why don't you have a blog?

Precie said...

Ah, but I do have a's just not set to "public" (so it doesn't appear in my Blogger profile, and people can't stumble upon it via google). But I'm happy to give it to people I "know":

And here are the profiles I did. My memory is apparently shot to heck because I barely remember writing them. I do recall vaguely that my instructor mentioned Mariana's character needing a little more oomph...I eventually decided she's a proto-feminist whose social projects run directly counter to her husband's professional aspirations.

Mariana, age 18, was raised in a semi-rural area of Victorian England, with two older brothers and two younger brothers. She's a 5'4" brunette with tame hair, brown eyes, fair skin, and a medium build.

Dutiful and responsible, she has learned the science of domesticity and the art of femininity from her mother, but she is essentially her father's daughter. Her intellectual father has educated her alongside her brothers in the Classics and has fostered her open, Socratic thirst for knowledge. She loves to read, explore nature, and learn new things, but she's never been outside her family's lands. Her naïve and earnest idealism turns out to be her fatal flaw.

Her favorite heroine is Elizabeth Bennett, and she considers herself a similar "studier of character." She's not very good at being subtle about it, and she tends to stare at people longer than socially appropriate. She also asks impertinent questions. These overtures won't be well-accepted by her future London social sphere. (She may also become involved with abolitionist movement, advocacy of child labor laws, and educational opportunities for the lower classes. These causes will put her at odds with her new husband William.)

William Masterson, age 25, was raised in London. He is the fourth of five sons. At 5'9", he's the second tallest among his siblings. With light brown hair, green eyes, and pale skin that suggests he spends too much time indoors, he stands and moves stiffly. He also tends to be slow to act, spending too much time deliberating. As yet unmarried, he lives with his parents and, aside from the income he contributes to the household, he saves almost every penny.

Following in his father's footsteps, he is a clerk at the East India Company. He's moderately educated, careful with money, and enjoys popular journals of the period. He strives to appear successful in all things, at least more successful than his brothers. He is ultimately the epitome of "Captains of Industry." Although he is a moral, responsible gentleman, his fatal flaw is ambition.

Mariana and William are joined together in an arranged marriage. Their families have been acquaintances for multiple generations, but these two have only the slightest recollections of each other as children.

The Anti-Wife said...

These are really good. I can already see the conflict to come between them.

I understand the concept but I'm still struggling with doing it in 250 words. I think I'm too literal sometimes. They asked for a profile independent of scene or plot and I focused on the facts. Sargeant Friday would be so proud!

Can I link to your blog or would you feel uncomfortable about that?

Ello said...

I really like what Precie said, starting from the inside and working your way out. I think that is right on target. Instead of just external details, you describe what makes them tick - what makes them who they are. AW I think you hit it on the nail, you focused on facts - like a police description of an assailant. Look internally at the psychology instead.

WriterKat said...

You've got a great start. It's hard to put visuals on paper. There's ways to work your word count to give you more room. You want to be as succinct but interesting as possible. Use powerful descriptive word choices over phrases. "Cutting whit" (2 words) instead of "wicked sense of humor" (4 words)

Cut out the unnecessary words to give your more room. For example:

"Her light brown hair is beginning to welcome some gray strands to the mix and she considers her forming wrinkles badges of honor for a life well lived." (28 words)

Not one for dying her hair, gray strands sprinkle her brown. Her wrinkles are badges for a life well lived. (20 words)

"Anne never married although she came close 4 different times. Her commitment issues stem from her parents nasty divorce during her childhood." (22 words)

Her parent's nasty divorce flattened her confidence. She never married although she came four times close. (16 words)

“Her wicked sense of humor and frustrated desire to be an actress make her fun to be around and she has many friends and acquaintances.” (25 words)

Her cutting whit, fueled by a frustrated desire to act was magnetic, attracting people to her. (16 words)

If you can trim each sentence by a few words like this, you will have more room for description.

Thanks for the great notes on character building. I've been struggling with one of my characters and just realized I haven't fleshed her out. I'm going to do this exercise.

The Anti-Wife said...

I agree. I guess I already had an image of her in my head that just didn't translate onto paper the way the instructor wanted.

I agree with some of your points, but think for this assignment I should have concentrated more on her internal characteristics than external. I also have a fear of losing my voice if I chop just for word count.

One point, I think you used the wrong whit/wit. The definition of whit is: The least bit; an iota: doesn't give a whit what was said; not a whit afraid. I think you meant wit.

Erica Orloff said...

Hi Anit-Wife . . .

You know, for what it's worth . . . here's my half-a-cent.

You have 250 words. That's it. I don't think I need to know anything in the first paragraph of EITHER of these profiles. If you think about J.K. Rowling's Hary Potter, the most we know about his appearance are his glasses and a scar. Hagrid--his size. Pick a couple of writers you admire, and I would be willing to bet they seize on ONE thing you MUST know to remember their character's appearance. The rest is unimportant. I am not my 5'11 height. I am not my dark hair and eyes. That won't give you my profile. You are not what you look like (unless . . . in either of our cases, there is something DEEPLY personal about our appearances that wounds us, or makes us very proud or causes us to be shunned or stared at).

I think you have to use your 250 words to make us really, really care. Rather than that first paragraph, can you tell us that:

"Anne never married though she came close four different times. Her commitment issues stem from her parents' nasty divorce. She can STILL remember the day her father packed everything he owned and left--without so much as a backward glance."

I.e., a lot of people have nasty divorces. But like Dostoevsky said, "Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." You need to find that precise "unhappiness" that is Anne's and Anne's alone. THEN we will really care passionately about her. Stir our sympathy--and you can do it in 250 words with a single sentence. My "unhappy" moment was when my ex-husband threatened to kidnap my baby and disappear forever. My family dragged me to a tough "Mafia" lawyer who taught me that divorce is a game of chicken and he who blinks first loses. I was being bullied and emotionally abused. And I had to stand up for myself. I did, and have NEVER, for one second looked back. He blinked. Not me. THAT precise moment tells you about my character. Not "nasty divorce."

So find those unique moments . . . and don't be frustrated. You know these two characters. Just help us to know them.

More than a half a cent. But hope maybe some of it is useful.

The Anti-Wife said...

Thank you. That's very helpful.

I really appreciate everyone's comments. I'm a very bottom line person and have held my emotions so tightly all my life I find it difficult to describe them. I think that's why it's easier for me to deal with settings.

But I am trainable and grateful for all the feedback.

cyn said...

tim's description made me laugh. don't be frustrated. it is very hard to have a limit. and i see some great advice here. we are constantly told when writing characters : what do they want? what do they fear? what motivates them?

i guess it is the most important thing we can convey to garner smpathy and conneciton in or heros, and even in our villains.

thank you for sharing. i think you're doing great and we are learning with you. =)

WriterKat said...

True about finding your own voice. The class sounds like it is a great place to play & learn. You have two strong characters so they can't help but emerge.

Right on about whit/wit. Good info. :-)

ORION said...

This is really a great exercise...let me do Keith from LOTTERY.
Keith is a vietnam veteran. He drinks beer, belches and farts in public, and thinks the government and all lawyers are out to get him. He helps old ladies carry heavy packages and beats up anybody that calls his friend Perry slow or retarded. He cries on the 4th of july during fireworks displays and he can't even look at photographs of the Vietnam war memorial. He has never seen his son and says he doesn't care but carries the only picture of him that he has in his wallet.
Under 100 words.

ChristineEldin said...

This is a fantastic exercise.
I think what Orion hit on was what are the character's vulnerabilities--in a show and not tell way. Any secrets from the past? Ongoing secret?
What will the character kill for? Literally.
I think you are creating clinical characters. Can you think of a friend or relative and really give us the meat, the gossip?

( I sit back and dust off my unpubbed ms....)


Maddy said...

Nip on over and collect your award as at todays date.

ChristineEldin said...

I was thinking about this some more.
I think it's like this: if you're in a gossipy group, what would everyone be saying about so and so? Only the juicy tidbits. I think. Maybe? Please feel free to toss this out.

bookfraud said...

an interesting exercise, and i thought you did fine, but it holds no water for me unless your story is exactly 250 words long. a character is revealed by what she does, says, etc. in a story, not a rote listing of traits. description is great, but it never can get to the heart of a character. you can say someone has gray hair, but doesn't it say more about her if she goes to the beauty shop every week to get it dyed?

just an opinion from a sometime lurker and all-around crank.

The Anti-Wife said...

Thanks. I'm definitely learning and very happy to share.

Sometimes I think my voice has a terminal case of laryngitis! ;)

The Anti-Wife said...

Because I read the book and loved it, I know this is a good basic description of Keith.

If I hadn't read the book I would think this sounds like thousands of other Viet Nam vets - many of whom I knew because I started college in 1966.

To all your descriptive phrases I ask why? Why does he think these things and do these things? Why does he take care of Perry yet not connect with his own son? What does he fear and what gives him joy? If you're creating a profile of a character, you have to answer these questions.

Keith is a wonderful and complex character and this description doesn't begin to tap his depth.

The Anti-Wife said...

Thanks! Me Luvs Awards! And I truly appreciate it.

I think it's all relative. What's interesting to one person many not be to another. A character has to have enough dimensions to appeal to a wide audience. That's where a profile can help because it forces you to think about them in depth versus just surface traits.

The Anti-Wife said...

Thanks for stopping by. I don't think it's possible to create a complete profile for a main character in only 250 words. You can peak the reader's interest, but to really give them depth you have to explore their traits more thoroughly than 250 words allow. You can make a good start and perhaps fill in the holes later on and I know the profiles I did weren't that great.

I think the purpose of this exercise was to get us all thinking about our characters as multi-dimensional people and it certainly has done that for me.

Mary Witzl said...

I love all this. I read everyone's comments and this is all so helpful.

Over-writing is a problem I've had ever since the first time someone put a pencil in my hand. I love details and always want to offer more. Recently I have noticed how swamped my work is by trivia -- and how once I've really savaged it and trimmed extraneous stuff out, everything comes to life.

I love what Chris and Orion said. Someone once made the comment that you like a character for his/her good points, but you love them for their flaws. Foibles, insecurities and outright personality defects endear us to characters and make us start to care about them and want to get to know them better.

日月神教-任我行 said...