Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mug Shots

Gabriella Herkert, Catnapped and Doggone

Do I control my characters? Have you seen my hair? If I gain the upper hand over anything in my world I’m going to start there. No. I don’t control my characters. At least not the good ones. Well, I suppose that’s only sorta true which I’ll admit is much like being kinda pregnant. Perhaps I ought to explain.

As a new writer, I used the text book approach to character development. Every person who made it onto the blank page only got there after I’d built an entire world for him. I used a written template that gave the facts, just the facts, Ma’am. Birth dates, school attendance, height, weight, astrological sign. An entire life boiled down to one 8 ½” by 11” perfectly uniform data sheet. Every character fit the mold. Then they hit the page and…no one wanted to know them. I know many authors who use these time honored techniques to sketch a new character. There’s a reason schools teach character development this way. It just didn’t work for me. I got so comfortable with knowing the details of my characters that I didn’t know them at all.
Here’s an example. I am female, 5’4” and 110 pounds. Those are my metrics, the sort of thing that would end up on my character sheet. How would that translate to my early characters? Size mattered. Small women were victims. Don’t get me wrong. The world works on those same assumptions. Check out the crime victim statistics sometime. As a storyteller, I was taking my readers (mostly family in the early days) into the world they already knew. Yes, the story read “right.” Accurate. Believable. And totally uninteresting.

Then, I started thinking about why I was an interesting character (if in fact I am which is a delusion I allow myself). How did I get to be interesting despite my unerring ability to fit within the world’s acceptable parameters for people like me? Take the same details. Gender, height and weight. Yes, I can see some criminal deciding I’d make a good punching bag. I fit the mold. Then it actually happened. I was mugged. Some bad character looked at my size, did a mental character assessment and decided to cast me as the victim. What happened? What always happens when the characters are real. The numbers get crunched and 2 + 2 = 5. He grabbed the purse slung across my body . Reached out and touched me. If he’d just looked menacing and demanded the five bucks I had in the wallet, I would have gladly offered it up. Instead, I used my size disadvantage and dove into him – over him -- when he expected me to pull away. He ended up dazed and stupefied from hitting his head on the sidewalk. I don’t know who was more surprised. Then, I did what any woman threatened by a man with an eight inch, seventy pound advantage would do. I ran like hell.

I learned something that day about characters that stay flat on a page, within their templates, and those that don’t. You can know all the details about someone and still get surprised when you mug them. The essence of character, the quirk, the really interesting part, can’t be quantified. It can only be revealed when your perfect prototype surprises you. Grows beyond your control. I still do quick character sheets for my most important people so I don’t forget the color of their hair or shrink them mid-book. Then, I take them out for a mugging. Ever been to a costume party? Go as one of them. Play chess online and chat with your imaginary friend’s voice. Raid your closet to see if you can come up with the clothes your protagonist would pack if she were on the run. They won’t be the same as the ones you pack even if you are exactly the same size. Because you’re not and that’s cool.



CJ Lyons said...

Woohoo, Gabi! Way to go--remind me to never sneak up on you at a conference!!!

Jen Forbus said...

Yeah, I second CJ. I'm not gonna try to do combat with you Gabi! :) What a great outlook on character. Life is so much more fun when people surprise you...look at how much we enjoy little children. Isn't it because they always do or say things that totally catch us off guard? Well, and they're cute - most of them anyway! :)

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