Building the Character

Building the Character – Reprinted from the WordCraft newsletter on the BackWash site.

One of the keys to building a living, breathing character lies in the details. We are constantly reminded to use all our senses. Sometimes, we need to step back and build the back story for some of the main characters using all those senses. If we look at the stories we like to read, we will also find that all of these details are not revealed to us at one time.

A couple of lessons I used with my students are valuable for all of us to revisit once in a while:

1. Items from a wallet or purse give your character dimension. Personal items in a wallet or purse provide detectives with insights into a person. Besides the standard items of driver’s license and cash, items such as credit cards, business cards, lighters, notes, pictures or the lack of them all provide clues. They can also trigger a memory for your character.

2. Show your character dressing. What rituals are there in the daily robing? If you remember Lee Marvin in the 1965 movie Cat Ballou there is an incredible scene in which we see the transformation of Kid Shelleen from the drunk who cannot hit either side of the barn to the steel-eyed gunfighter. This is all accomplished in a dressing ritual. Have your character dress for a special event. Take time and space to use all senses. You might even end with a scene that you wish to include in your story.

3. Take time to show where and how your character lives. What books, magazines or items are scattered around the apartment or house? Is the room neat and tidy, like that of Adrienne Monk, or cluttered and messed up like the room of a teenager?

Once you have built a back story for your character, you will have a better feel for how and why s/he will act in certain ways in the story you are writing.

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