Adrian Fogelin brought two bags of used shoes to writer’s conference in St. Augustine, Florida and dumped them on a table. And that’s where I learned the trick of creating male and female characters from a size 13 Nike or a strappy yellow pump.
Fogelin is the author of several novels for middle readers and young adults, including The Real Question andCrossing Jordan – which became a TV series.
Here is Adrian’s tip: Need to create a female character? Go to any second-hand shop. Pick up a purse, a pair of shoes, a bra, a blouse, a pair of hose or socks, panties, and a jacket and skirt, if that’s what she would wear.
Congrats. You’ve created the outline for a female character. Now fill in the details.
The purse belongs Howardene, but she wants – prefers – to be called Howey. See that yellow cat hair inside the purse? Howey is owned by a yellow tabby named Hello Kitty. The blouse you chose is a top a teen would wear, and the hose are Pippy Longstocking classics. The jacket is a black cotton hoodie.
There’s no driver’s license, because your Howey is 13 years old. There is a brand-new Jefferson High School student ID, and we can see from the photo that Howey is trying to look older.
There’s a pick, because Howey plays guitar. She took it up after watching Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and she’s sang Moon River twice at the mall food court. A heart pendant came from an imaginary boyfriend, but she’s dying – just dying – for a boy to give her a necklace, because that’s how she’ll know he’s The One.
There’s a bottle of supermarket brand all-day pain relief, because Howie gets these unexplained headaches. They’re not so very painful, but she wants everyone to believe they are.
Lipstick, bright blue, because she thinks red is a turnoff to high school boys. However, she won’t wear it with a T-shirt, because she thinks lipstick with shorts and 4-inch heels looks bizarre. Howie says boys don’t wear a bowtie with shorts and flip flops, so what does bright blue lipstick with shorts and 4-inch heels say about a girl?
She keeps a $2 bill as an emergency backup – and for good luck because her father gave it to her. Daddy doesn’t live with the family anymore, he’s with his “whore” in Orlando, where they both work at Disney World.
There’s also a plastic rosary and an old toothbrush in a baggie. If there’s a chance she’ll get kissed by a boy, she wants to slip into the restroom and quickly brush her teeth.
Does Howey feel almost real now? Plot-driven stories get the heart racing, but character-driven stories grab the heart. It took three minutes to write this bio, but we already know a lot about Howey. We’re not only getting sense of what she looks like, but her hopes and dreams? We did this with a purse.
WRITING EXERCISE 1
Now pick out a secondary character in your novel. Not a flat role, a round character, a guy who sticks around for several scenes.
Go to any shop where used shoes are sold. Pick a man’s shoe. (Not a shoe for yourself, that’s cheating.) Now, associate that shoe with a real man or boy you know, or maybe several people.
Let’s give him a name. How about Samuel? And a nickname. His friends call him Sketcher.
Write down a list of facts about a person who would own this shoe.
What is Sketcher’s age?
Consult your plot. What’s in future for this character? What’s behind him?
How does Sketcher’s age impact the story about him? Was Sketcher in the military? Are Sketcher’s knees arthritic from squatting while playing baseball and football?
Is Sketcher a sharp-dressed man, or does he wear shabby clothes as if he sleeps in Salvation Army donation boxes?
Where are the shoe’s wear points? What do say about the owner’s health or medical condition?
Finally, write two details about the shoe owner’s face.
Is Sketcher’s head shaped like an anvil? Does he have a long, low eyebrow that meets in the middle? Does he have a prominent adam’s apple.
How does your character sit in his chair?
Is Sketcher a neo-Neanderthal: small brainpan, and arms so short they can’t reach to the bottoms of his own pockets?
Now we’re ready to write a line for a scene: “His arms appeared to be crossed, but actually they were closed. If you knew him, you would sense that was indicative of a strict Jesuit education.”
Now watch the character walk. Is he subservient, introverted, swinging his arms. Does Sketcher shuffle? Describe him in a scene: “He tramped behind a shopping cart to keep his balance. Sketcher’s walk was really a plod. Each step was a controlled fall.”
Describe his hands. “His hands were working hands, eight inches across. That’s two inches wider than a normal man’s hand, so it seemed as if he had an extra finger.”
WRITING EXERCISE NUMBER 2
Now let’s use setting and our seven senses (yep, five plus time and imagination) to create a female character. In your mind, go into her living room. Look at the sofa. What does it tell you about her personality? In my mind, it’s show-offish brown leather. Is your character’s white silk? Green-and-yellow plaid, scruffy from where the dog always sits? Is there a cigarette burn on the arm?
What does the recliner smell like? How does it inform the reader about social-economic level of the character and her housekeeping skills? Does it face the TV? Does the sofa face another sofa, so that they are the center of conversation?
Write a line for a scene: “The recliner was her fortress of solitude, surrounded by magazines, a coffee cup, an almost-empty Coca-Cola glass with a grease slick floating near the bottom.”
Describe a place where your character goes frequently. A bar. A supermarket. A church. What does she do when she’s there? Why?
What does she think about? What memories do those places have for her?
How does she feel about those places? Why does she go there?
What regrets does she have?
What does she wish for when she goes there?
WRITING EXERCISE 3
The web is splendid for character research. I Googled “lipstick,” and removed the names from four replies:
1. This guy is turned on:
i think women not wearing lipstick is not a women, they look so sexy with it on, my wife looks so hot when she puts on lipstick it’s like putting a switch on me.
2. This guy digs mascara:
I personaly do not like lipstick. I don’t believe it enhances a woman’s beauty at all. But eye makeup does.
3. Never leave home without it:
Lipstick is an amazing product. You can do a full face of makeup but leave out the lipstick and your look seems incomplete, but wear nothing more than lipstick and (especially the right shade) you look totally put together.
4. A gift for irony:
I want to make up Men in lipstick and eye makeup, they would look so much better. Everyone delights in kissing lips smeared with petroleum and red dye, and it smears elsewhere so well.
Now create a scene. Google your key words. Copy and paste the words in a blank document. Use those ideas to create a back-and-forth conversation. Maybe your characters are a mother who tries to convince her 14-year-old daughter that she should tone down her makeup. Or a father and mother debating whether their 13-year-old girl – maybe Howie – is old enough to wear makeup to the ninth grade.
Fogelin also talked about creating dialogue. “Don’t just use spoken words. Include description and the looks between the characters. Where his eyes are looking? What is she thinking? What are they wearing? What’s next?
“Include gestures. Beats. Place. Word ticks. Language they use. Intentions. Condescending or worshipping attitudes. Prove a character says one thing but means another.”
Now put those ideas together in a scene:
“The defendant will please rise.”
What if I don’t? What’s he gonna to do to me? Sentence me to three days in the electric chair?
But then, John felt his bowels loosen. His buttocks clenched involuntarily. The judge stared at him. His peripheral vision sensed deputies on both sides. That was the answer. They were going to reach under his arms and jerk him to his feet.
John stood and realized his knees were weak. Now he hoped the deputies would hang on.
WRITING EXERCISE 4
William McKeen suggests interviewing your characters. Okay, let’s try that. Pick a character in your book. Now pick a person you know who is most like that character. Ask him questions.
What is your greatest fear? How did that happen?
Why don’t you have any friends?
What do you want the most, and what is the biggest obstacle to getting it?
What is your dominant state of mind: positive, negative, caring, or apathetic.
Now let’s put your character into the scene where he’s going to appear in your book.
Challenge the character with a conflict related to his answers. Does the character grow? How does his growth change his or her character arc?
In Phenomenon, George Malley was zapped by lightning. George, a small-town California everyman, was transformed into a genius with the kind of telekinetic powers we all wish we had. George uses his powers to help a sick man, to predict earthquakes, to do good. However, learns that his powers make him a freak.
One mistake writers make is that their characters react to a situation as the writer wishes the character would react. In a perfect world, there is no conflict. In the real world, life is about conflict.
Ask yourself to be truthful. If you were faced with the same situation your character will go through, how would you react? If you won the $369 kajillion MegaMillions lottery, would you become generous, or would you close yourself off from the rest of the world? Me, I’m gonna deposit $1 million into 300 banks, register as a Republican, and erect a security system around my house. As for my family, I can’t think of anyone I ever liked very much.
And see, that honesty is to be a much more interesting – and conflicting – answer than someone who will devote the rest of this life to helping others.
The lesson here is to take an ordinary character and put him in extraordinary circumstances.
Take a headstrong girl who is only concerned about herself, and have her save the plantation. Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With the Wind.
Take a geek who owns a temporary employment agency stand in for the president.
Have Jack Nicholson step over cracks in the sidewalk. As Good As It Gets.
Give Clint Eastwood a bad attitude and a thin black cigar. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
In the real world, we’re suspicious of quirky people. If they’re too quirky, we avoid them. In the book world, quirky is gold.
Read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, or watch the movie. Crossdressing nightclub entertainer Lady Chablis. Gay Savannah socialite and murderer John Williams, and his straight lover Billy Hansford. Spooky old voodoo priestess Minerva. In real life, journalist John Kelso didn’t avoid these quirky character, he cultivated them. And it produced a wonderful book.
Google personality disorders and you’ll find a dozen sites, but I suggest every writer should have a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Live with each character, talk to them, ride in their cars, get them to tell you their secrets, whatever is appropriate for that character in your manuscript.
Imagine a character you don’t like: wrong political affiliation, wrong sports team, a bully at school. Imagine he has few friends, maybe he’s a loner or hard to get along with.
Always have your character do the unexpected: the Godfather confesses to a priest (Godfather III), the champion fighter becomes overweight and winds up performing bad comic routines in his restaurant (Raging Bull), ordinary housewife shoots a rapist and then goes on the lam with her best girlfriend (Thelma and Louise).
If the character doesn’t do this, he or she seems as two dimensional as cardboard. Give characters, even flat characters, something the audience can identify with, or even better, care about.
Even evil characters like Al Pacino’s character in Scarface, or Darth Vader in Star Wars. Have Clint Eastwood’s murderous character repent in Unforgiven. Have Tony Montana fail to understand what he’s doing wrong.
Cris Freese, a book editor, says writers must read widely about the craft of writing. Agreed. Read authors in your genre. And study writing from other mediums. We live in the golden age of Netflix, so I suggest watch rent and study Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Americans, Bloodline, House of Cards, The Office, Friends, or any show you find fascinating. They’re all about excellent writing. Take notes on your favorite characters, and use what they do or say.
If you watch Breaking Bad, you know the wheeling, dealing, shady Saul Goodman.
His backstory is revealed in a prequel, Better Call Saul.
Originally known as Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer and a public defender, his office was located in the back of a nail salon, where he lived. Over the course of first season, we saw how an ethically challenged Jimmy developed into a full-blown sleazeball.
Saul is an off-white, sketchy lawyer because he grew up as a con artist. Viewers quickly find out that Saul Goodman (a name created from the slurred line, “It’s all good, man”) was Jimmy McGill, who known as “Slippin’ Jimmy” for faking falls in front of businesses and operating other petty scams.
Characters Should Have Moments of Growth
A story line in the first season of Better Call Saul involves Craig Kettleman, the county treasurer, who is accused of embezzling $1.6 million dollars. Jimmy wants to defend Kettleman, but the prosecution’s case goes to his friend. However, Kim can’t get Kettleman to take a plea deal, so she is demoted. Slippin’ Jimmy has his associate steal Kettleman’s money. But instead of splitting the cash with his partner, Jimmy’s character decides to turn over the money to the police and tell the Kettlemans that their money is gone. He gets Kettleman to accept the plea deal, and rescues his friend Kim. It’s an ironic version of character growth.
Characters are most interesting when writers throw them in a moment of conflict. Will the character do the right thing, which ultimately leads to growth? Previously, it seemed like Jimmy was only concerned with his own career, but he showed he cared about someone other than himself. Going against his con-artist nature gave the audience a reason to root for Jimmy, and it started his character arc upwards.
Think about it: Did Scarlett O’Hara grow? Did Dorothy Gale grow in The Wizard of Oz? Did Michael Corleone grow, even though he grew into a villain?
When you’re writing characters, show their development over the course of the story. If the hero remains static, you lose your audience. Good characters remain static. The best characters do surprisingly bad things. Think O’Brien on Downton Abbey. Her character didn’t like Bates, who was lame from a war injury and didn’t want him to get a job, so she tripped him in a dark, public attempt to humiliate him.
Review scenes in your novel where a character has to make a conscious decision, for good or for bad. Write the scene with the choice you expect him to make. Now rewrite that scene so that the character makes the wrong choice, the surprising choice. Sprinkle those surprises throughout your story. It’ll keep your readers on their toes.