Who Am I?
By Cait Collins
How well do you know your characters? Are they living, breathing people or a piece of cardboard? Do they dare to argue with you? Do you converse with them? If not, why not? Some of my best scenes were the result of a frank conversation with the protagonist.
Some of the best advice I’ve received regarding character development came from Pulitzer Prize winning author, Michael Cunningham. He assigned our creative writing seminar group to make a list of 20 physical characteristics of our protagonist. The basics were easy: tall, brown hair, blue eyes, medium build. But that’s not enough. Your list must be more descriptive. How tall; six foot or six foot four? His hair is what shade of brown? Are the eyes Paul Newman blue?
Use your senses in creating the list. “The scent of apple wood tobacco clings to his tweed jacket” creates a more vivid image than “he smokes a pipe.” She spoke with a faint Irish brogue not only describes the speaking voice, it also tells her birth origin. He had piano player’s hands indicates long, slender, manicured fingers.
When your list is complete, write the opening paragraph of your story using a minimum of six of the physical characteristics. Read the paragraph aloud. What do you know about the hero that you didn’t know before you made the list?
This suggestion is my addition to Michael’s list. Once the physical is established and we can visualize the character, let’s add his emotional attributes. Make a list of ten emotional attributes. Remember heroes are flawed human beings Do not try to make him perfect. He will not thank you. Now rewrite the paragraph using three of the emotional characteristics. Read the paragraph aloud. Is the character balanced? .How does he deal with his flaws. Are the two of you in communication with one another? If not, rewrite the paragraph.
Taking the time to define your characters before beginning the work creates a better relationship between the characters and the writer. It allows you to anticipate his reactions to situations and better craft the scenes. The more you know about each main actor in the story, the more believable the work.