Friday, October 2, 2009

Nuances of Character

Recently a beloved uncle of mine passed away. Since I live so far away from my family it was easy to keep the grief and shock of the situation at bay and go about the business of preparing to attend the services. It wasn’t until I read his obituary – deftly crafted by my first cousins – that I felt an acute sense of the person they (and we) had lost. One line in particular – He loved the New York Yankees, New York Giants, Notre Dame football, Frank Sinatra and a good cigar – drove me to tears because it painted such a vivid picture of my uncle. It was perfect and fitting but at the same time (because let’s face it, the writer’s mind never shuts off) I wondered why, of all the facts about my uncle in his obit, did those make me really Feel?

My guess is because our likes and dislikes make us human. It’s what connects us. They are nuances of character.

The simple facts bring us deeper into the core of a person. Maybe reading the above sentence didn’t have the same effect for you it had on me because you didn’t personally know my uncle. And while it doesn’t paint the complete picture – if you look beyond his particular tastes I think you can get a sense of who he was as a person.

Even if I didn’t know him, what I can gather from that sentence is that he was a man of tradition. Family and roots meant something to him. He loved kicking back to watch a great game (and would be thrilled with the Yanks nabbing the AL East woohoo!)and enjoyed the finer things in life. He was also a bit of a romantic.

Pretty powerful stuff to glean from what appears to be a list of sports teams and taste in music.

How then, do we as writers use this information to make our characters live and breathe and pop off the page?

Creating a character notebook with a laundry list of likes and dislikes always seems daunting to me, not to mention extra work. I envy writers who can pull that off. I’m more of the mind that the character is “out there” waiting to be discovered if I can only shut-up long enough to listen. It’s when I listen, that I usually get a sense of the character but this process doesn’t always present the “likes fried chicken, hates Coke, plans on dyeing hair purple in a month” details that pull a character into focus. Sometimes I have to play around a bit, get to know them before their likes and dislikes are apparent.

While these minute details may sometimes seem pointless and get overlooked (or over-used) in our writing, they are an integral part of making a character three dimensional.

So who are some of your favorite pop off the page characters? And what was it about them that made you identify with and/or remember them?


  1. I am sorry for your loss. But through this loss, I think you've made a very important point. What makes our characters human? What little personality quirks do we give them to make them real?

    I just re-read THE BOOK THIEF and I love Rudy's obsession with Jesse Owens. The fact that he covers himself with coal and recreates Owens' legendary Olympic victories is genuine. And that Rudy does this with no care for the racism of Nazi Germany makes him an innocent child. Likewise, Rosa Huberman's constant swearing first appears as if she's uncaring, but we soon see her swearing as a quirky way of showing love.

    Nice post.

  2. I'm sorry your trip home this time was for a sad occasion.

    You asked about memorable characters and I immediately remembered the opening scene of THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS. Now there's a character! She's in her social worker's car on the way to a new foster home. The social worker is pleading with Gilly to give the new home a chance. How does Katherine Paterson show Gilly's attitude in small ways? Her bubble gum! Gilly views her social worker through a big bubble, then POP the gum is in her hair and on her nose. When she's told to get rid of it, what does Gilly do? She sticks it "carefully" under the car door handle and leaves it there as a "sticky surprise."
    I read this book years ago. Gilly stuck with me!

  3. Thanks.

    Meg - I *loved* Rudy in The Book Thief - sobbed at his fate. (don't want to spoil in case anyone hasn't read it!) Marcus Zusak created such a masterpiece.

    Gale - that's one I haven't read yet but I have heard of - so you know she's a good character! Love the bubble gum and yes, what a subtle but powerful way to show Gilly's feelings.

  4. Robin, I think we had the same uncle.

    As for memorable characters, I often find myself thinking about Meg from A Wrinkle in Time and Fern from Charlotte's Web. Why? I don't know, they were both hyper emotional, but I guess their soft sides touched a nerve with me.

    As for The Book Thief, well, I'm reading it now and I just met Rudy and fell in love with him and his Jesse Owens fascination and now I know that something horrible is going to happen to him and I don't think I want to read the book anymore because I'm not going to be able to stand it when it happens. Argggggh.

    P.S. Kidding. I will, of course, continue to read this amazing book but I will brace for the sad fate that I now know is to going to befall Rudy. Sigh.

  5. Robin, I'm sorry to hear about your uncle, and I think you're right about your cousins details. I feel like I knew him.

    I think when we write, adding those little character details often propels the plot forward, even in first drafts. I find subplots sometimes grow from one, small, added detail.

    And count me in the Rudy fan club. The devastated fan club.