By Liesa Malik
How many books have you read recently on building characters? Not building character—as in developing your own moral compass—but building characters that you can write about in your next novel? A quick search on Amazon recently pulled up over 100,000 titles when I searched for “books, characters in fiction.” Whew!
As commercial fiction writers we know that good characters are some of the most important ingredients to any story. Where would we be if Scrooge weren’t such a delightfully well-rounded reluctant hero?
We’ve often been instructed on how to build characters, but today I want to talk about collecting them through real life adventures. Characters are in the people all around us. If we learn to use our powers of observation, and note people continuously, our stories will have a real boost up when seeking publication.
Here are some ideas for your “collecting” process:
- Have a place to keep your collection. This could be a spiral notebook, a file on your computer, or a binder with tabs for collecting and sorting your observations. Thing is, try to keep this collection in one place. Mobility simply gives you opportunity for losing precious work (I still have a poetry book out in Atlanta, Georgia somewhere. Grr!)
- When you’re in a restaurant, look around. Find the most interesting or the most boring, cutest or ugliest person in the room and jot down a quick biography of him or her. So what that you don’t know them? You’re working on fiction. Pretend you’re Sherlock Holmes and note things like the way they use their flatware, whether they’re glued to their phone or are looking about, how they sit, how they chew, how they interact with the room around them. Give them a name that truly suits them. Bingo! You’ve just “collected” your first person. Here’s an extra tip. If you go to a bagel or coffee shop each morning, as I do, you’ll see the same people over and over. In the course of a week, you could build quite a lot of notes and history about your character. Pop them into your collection file. When you need that character, he or she will be ready to polish and run with.
- Make a list of lists. Sitting around for fifteen minutes? You could play a game of Sudoku, or you could make a list of lists. Pull out your trusty notebook and jot down lists of people to remember. Start with the phrase “My favorite ___ is . . .” The favorites is a list of occupations or roles of people in your life: teachers, neighbors, relatives, movie stars and so on. At a later time you can choose one of these favorite roles and list actual people, or choose one favorite person and write about them.
- Drive around and snap a photo of a house you’ve never been in. Okay. Got this idea from the July/August issue of Writer’s Digest, but I just love it. They didn’t say to take a photo, but what the heck? Live dangerously. You could only be accused of stalking, prowling, or “casing the joint.” Once you have the photo or a clear image of the house, write down the story behind it and the people who live there. Bonus! You’re learning to describe setting as well as build characters.
- Be a busy body. Whenever I go to get a haircut or chat with someone on my street, inevitably people tell me stories from their lives about relatives I’ll never meet, or bosses who only get worse with each retelling. When I get home I try to jot down at least part of my friends’ story. It’s good for building a character. One word of caution. When it comes time to retell any true tale, try to change something significant about the person gossiped over. I mark these notes with a phrase like “true recollection” and the name of who told me this, so that I know how much needs to be changed around.
This is such a fun topic that I could brainstorm all day with you. Bet you have some great ideas too. Why not comment here and let everyone know your best character-collecting tip?
Or join me this Saturday at the Lakewood Art Council’s Art Gallery, 85 S. Union Street (behind the Wendy’s) from 1:00 to 2:30. I’ll be talking about repurposing books into arts and crafts and signing my book, Faith on the Rocks. Bet the place will be full of characters.