Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Delia Latham: What a Character!

Tessa led me to the one desk we had not yet visited. She paused, using a broad flourish to indicate a pig-tailed young woman garbed in black leather with matching hair and nail polish. My new boss's expectant expression bespoke her eagerness to make this introduction. “This…is Maggie!”

The girl’s angular face lit up, her smile engaging despite her black lipstick. She ignored my outstretched hand, jumping up to wrap me in a tight hug instead.

“Welcome to Cell Block C!” Maggie’s boisterous voice floated six inches over my shorter height. She released me and pointed a long finger in my face. “That’s C for Crazy,” she announced. “Gotta be a little loony to survive in here.” Beautiful blue eyes—the only pale color on her person, and therefore startling in their contrast—raked over my conservative suit and matching pumps. “Don’t worry, sweetie. I’ll help you.”

Laughing, Tessa drew me away. “That girl is a character!”

To say the least. And me being me, I couldn’t wait to get back to my own desk—or, more precisely, my notebook—so I could jot down a few words about Maggie. I’ve been writing long enough to know that stand-out characters are the spice of life in any good story.

Surely every writer has such a notebook. If not, how do they survive without it?

I have a collection of them, all packed with comments about interesting folks I’ve met. Their pages are dog-eared, because I use these little tools every time I set out to create a memorable character.

Maggie went under the “Quirky” heading. She’s one of those never-to-be-forgotten, one-of-a-kind individuals. But the world is made up of a plethora of varying personalities…as is a good book. Your character notebook can capture them for future reference.

Be careful not to get caught up in the odd or unusual and neglect the more mundane. Not every character in a storyline needs to be an oddball. Jot down a note or two about each person you meet, but don’t hesitate to profile those observed from a distance. If they snag your attention in some way, they’ll hook a reader, as well.

About the old fellow who hobbles along the streets of our small town leaning on his crooked cane, I wrote: Severe limp. Constant toothless smile. Clothing neat/clean, but worn. Battered felt hat. What’s his story?

A neighbor’s friend, who seems to be next door pretty much all the time, merited the following: Bad red wig. Amazing green eyes. Garish dress style, leftover hippie. Talks a lot.

Little snippets like these form an arsenal of character traits. Mix and match descriptions for a truly one-of-a-kind personality, or filter for something lower key.

Do you have a character notebook in your writer’s tool box? Developing this tool will add spice to your story. That’s a promise—from one character to another.

Delia Latham
(c) 2010

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