Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Creating Characters that Startle and Surprise


In the early 1980s, I attended a benefit at the Palm Springs Art museum alongside a host of movie stars and business tycoons. The goody bags handed out at the door to the women swishing their way inside the marble palace brimmed with expensive perfumes and silk scarves from Saks; the sculpture gardens glittered with diamonds and rubies strung around regal throats as couples took their places at linen-draped tables scattered with orchids. This was heady stuff for a girl from Cleveland, Ohio who’d stumbled into marriage to a millionaire.

In between the sorbet and the main course, I gathered the taffeta folds of my gown and tiptoed to the ladies room. Women pressed against the walls in crinoline and velvet like fluttering tulips. I squeezed in beside a matron dressed in magenta satin.

Then I looked at her.

What I saw wasn’t the woman pressed beside me, shoulder to shoulder. My mind reeled back to the glory of her youth as she’d glided across Hollywood celluloid with Fred Astaire. I saw the Ginger Rogers my parent’s generation had adored and I with them; an American icon who’d captivated the world with her beauty and her poise.

When my jaw hit the floor, Ginger’s mouth twitched. Then she said, “It’s hard to take a piss in here.”

Her ability to startle and surprise proved an enduring lesson for a budding novelist. Ginger Rogers was Hollywood royalty. Yet she talked like a sailor.

Do the characters of your current WIP startle and surprise? Is their interior monologue a shocking contrast to the dialogue spoken? Do they spout comments you’d never dare utter in public?

As a novelist, you must rebel against the Hobbesian notion that life is nasty, brutish and short. This line of thinking carries the subtle message of the sameness of all human lives, the dreary realties we all must face. Yes, we all will die and the man down the street strikes me as a brute but he’s also a unique individual. I want to know why he has a Confederate flag stuck in the back window of his truck yet drives by my house every Friday with a fistful of daisies for his wife.

The astute writer knows how to reveal distinctive qualities. Consider the co-worker, the one that picks his nose while playing Angry Birds as you deal with the flotsam from his workload. Why does he only wear green socks? There’s a Mickey Mouse bobble-head doll buried beneath the crap on his desk. Is it a memento from an idyllic childhood? A trophy from high school when he took Bobbie Sue to the carnival and finally got laid?

Collecting the unique details of an outwardly common life arms the novelist with ammo to create compelling characters. Life is in the details. As readers, we long to know why a girl with a dragon tattoo is a genius on a computer and why an orphaned boy lives in a closet beneath the stairs. Forget broomsticks and Hogwarts: J. K. Rowling had you in the opening paragraphs of the Potter series—you, and millions of other readers.

Organizing these traits takes skill. The first characterizations depicted should raise more questions in the reader’s mind than they answer. The protagonist’s choice of attire should deliver subtle clues, as should his manner of speaking and thinking and stalking across the room. Humans are built to conceal: we succeed quite artfully through speech and orthodontics and the square feet of our homes. And we’re vicious: we step out of the elevator if the black man inside is six feet tall and wearing a hoody; we duck past the old woman with the missing teeth then risk a sly glance. As humans, we’re flawed and abhorrent and greedy. We’re also noble and foolish and decent.

Mostly we’re curious about other people’s lives. I suspect this is why so many librarians tend toward a kindness and purity the rest of us will never achieve. They’ve honed their human curiosity through the reading of countless novels and come out the other end of an exploration through literature with a true understanding of the human heart.


15 comments:

  1. Great post, and a helpful reminder to pay attention to the worlds *outside* our heads as much as the ones *inside* them. Thanks!

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    1. Tammy, the world outside your head is bursting with characters you'll refine and rebuild inside your head. I love to eavesdrop at the gym--quite a few gym rats will chat on a cell phone while walking the treadmill. Some amusing vignettes, and quite a few have led to ideas for scenes in my novels. No doubt you'll experience the same if you throw away your good manners and become overly curious.

      Many thanks for reading along.

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  2. Thank you, Christine. When I read the title to this blog I thought it must be a play on words or a new concept in writing strategy with which I was unfamiliar. But no. It was exactly what it said it was. :D I loved story, Christine, and your points were valid. Well said.....Cat :)

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    1. Cat, I hope the title reflected the content of the post--to shock and surprise!

      Many thanks for reading along. xo

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  3. Christine, very thought provoking. Good to keep in mind. I love the little surprises in life, just when you think you have someone pegged, they surprise you. We're all human. Good post!Holly

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    1. Holly, I believe all novelists should periodically ditch the etiquette and succumb to an overly inquisitive mindset. Characters for your next novel abound in everyday life.

      Happy writing, and many thanks for reading along.

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  4. I concur entirely. More characters should surprise us. Heck we get plenty of humdrum folks from real life. We don't read to see them all again.

    BTW, your story reminded me of a time I was at a Hollywood premier (Keneth Branagh's Hamlet I believe). At any rate, I went to the bathroom and in walks Charlton Heston using a cane. It was pretty crowded, so he come right in and uses the urninal next to mine. I so wanted to say something to him, but of course that's the worst time to talk to a guy, so I just concentrated on my own business, but I couldn't help but think, "I'm making water with Moses!" I think I may have said it out loud, because when I tried to introduce myself to him later he gave me a kinda funny look. Oh well. I MADE WATER WITH MOSES! And I'm proud of it! :)

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    1. I certainly hope you find a way to retool "water with Moses" in your current or a future WIP! Many thanks for sharing a delightful story.

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  5. This is lovely! Just lovely, Christine. I'm so happy to have stumbled upon it via Twitter (it's always nice to know how people find you, isn't it?). A great reminder to go beyond the everyday, the expected. Thank you! :)

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  6. I've been thinking the same thing about my own characters. What is that makes them unique or raise the brow of a reader to keep reading? This post helped me remember to continue playing with contrast. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks for reading along, C.S. And good luck with your WIP!

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  7. I don't think I make shocking characters. But people seem to think I'll only create nuns(figuratively) then she curses. hah
    I think if I tried it would seem too forced, but sometimes I love characters who can say anything they want without any consequences.

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    1. And readers love characters who make comments we'd never dare utter in public! With practice, you'll soon write dialogue sure to bring your fans to laughter or move them to tears.

      Many thanks for reading along.

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