Building a Character
Sometimes I can be walking or driving somewhere and I’ll see a face of an older person. The facial lines, the squint or furrowed brow sets off that face from the crowd around it. Veterans gatherings have dozens of faces that thousands of stories to tell.
There are times when I’ll see a news article or story about someone who has done something wrong or against the law and a face will jump out. Motorcycle gangs, railroad workers, and carnival workers have that been-around-the-block look on their faces.
The seasoned, knowledgeable human does not hold their eyes wide open so you can see the white around the iris. Wide open eyes are associated with children and innocence and naivete. That wide-eyed wonderment. It is a practiced behavior in an adult to give this wide-eyed appearance. Some can pull it off and make it believable but others come across as fake.
One exercise that I use quite often is to get on Fiverr and give five photoshoppers two pictures of two different men. I ask that they merge the picture to create the face of a new man. Each rendered image looks unique because it is the perception of the photoshopper and the manipulation tools used.
It is that rendered image that I blow up to an 8-1/2 by 11″ portrait and hang on the wall. I have a set of questions that I ask myself about that face.
· Who are you?
· Where have you been?
· When did you leave X and go to Y?
· What have you done?
· Why do you have that scar?
WHO ARE YOU?
The answer to this question is not a name. It is more like a “What.” A good man gone bad. A schoolteacher who snapped one day and picked up a gun. A man who was fired off his job and decided to go back for revenge. People who find themselves in stand-offs, hold-outs, barricaded, and sequesters have done it for a reason. Maybe it is a man who went to war and the war never left him.
Sound familiar? There are dozens of local and regional news stories piecing together the background about people. Day by day, new tidbits are uncovered and a clearer, broader personal picture is created. Start reading the news in a different way to pick out these stories.
For example: Something happened to the man in the last few hours or days that sort of “last straw” moment. He was fired. His wife walked out. Things had been piling up on him for years. Someone comes forth with a childhood incident/story and it shows the man was this way since the third grade. That is your background. From those incidents that is where you start to build the “who” in your character.
I start by printing off these news stories and assemble a dossier on my nameless man. Sometimes it is only a few days before I have a good background built. Other times, it can take months.
There are 5 specific areas in a background that fill in:
· Someone who worked with him said-
· Someone he drank or hung out with said –
· Neighbors said –
· A former teacher said-
· A deputy or police officer said-
This is designed so that no one person can know the whole story about this man. It is a conglomeration of information that forms the picture in the reader’s mind. And it is an assembly of information over time. You want to paint an abstract picture of a life so that the reader must think about the personality of your character. You want the reader to “tell me more.”
Try this on for size: A former coworker talked about how his car had broken down alongside the road one late night. Your character was driving home from his shift and stopped to help.
A partying friend talked about how your character would buy a round of beers for the table down at a local watering hole.
A neighbor from many years back told a chilling tale about how she got up one morning and found your character out in his back yard. He was repeatedly striking a length of pipe on something on the ground but couldn’t see what. Angry, swearing, grunting, violent, as if in a rage.
A teacher from the eighth grade talked about how once or twice a month your character would come into class with a split lip, black eye, or favoring a scabbed over hand. None of the other kids had seen him in a fight. Your character came to school this way from home.
A police report on a warehouse break-in cites your character stopped for questioning. He had sprained his ankle, limping down two blocks over. The officer thought your character had been carrying something but could not find anything.
You want to space out the information over chapters so the reader gets slices and fractions of your character’s personality. It is the age-old question that you see all the time: Who is this man?
WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
I like to ask that picture on the wall about where they were before they were here. Remember, today’s bus drivers and truck drivers are not all that much different from the stagecoach drivers of the 1800s. Everybody has been somewhere. Some people have been everywhere.
Do a search on the mass murders of the 20th century and you’ll read about how they mostly stayed in the same area or traveled between two or three points.
“Jerry started working for us back in 2001. I know he had worked the Alaskan oil pipeline. He had this big scar on his shoulder from some accident up there.”
Jackson, Mississippi. The wilds of western Canada. Brownsville, Texas. The Sonoran Desert. Mars. Even if it is just around the corner, we all have been somewhere else besides home. When you build the background, hint or allude to something heinous that happened somewhere else. Give the impression that the man is now here to start “fresh” again. Maybe he is trying to forget something but don’t identify what it is that he is trying to forget.
I am not skilled in having a character think about his past in much detail. I can do a heartache for a love lost. I can do a regret for a past action, like having to sell stuff to keep food on the table. I cannot do a broken mind teetering on the brink of madness. The best I can do that the man is, “touched in the head.”
To me, it does not serve a purpose for a character to constantly dwell on past failures or count his regrets repeatedly. My characters acknowledge that it happened, they may make a silent vow it will never happen again, and then move on down the road to the future. I want my characters to be more from where they have been rather than how they were brought up.
Try this on for size: Man was born in West Virginia. Father moved them to Ohio at age 4. Nice life.
Man joined army and saw Louisiana. Discipline and behavior problems in military. Discharged.
Started up his own computer repair business. Started looking for love in Ohio.
Flew to California to visit friends. Stayed for ten years. Something bad happened. Flew back to Ohio, homeless. Something bad happened.
Flew to Florida to get away from the bad. Stayed for four years living on the bayou, drinking, and shrimping. Now you have a forty-year old man who has been back and forth across the US. He cannot seem to hold a job, bad luck in love, a drinking problem and likes to bare-fist fight. Where can you take this character?
WHEN DID YOU LEAVE X AND GO TO Y?
People one day packed up everything, got on a boat and months later landed in the New World. My next-door neighbor loads up his big Harley and heads for New Orleans because he feels like it. Or maybe it is time for the Sturgis run.
I like to use Mother Nature as the impetus to push someone from point A to point B. When the first snow falls in Calgary, it is time to ride south. When the geese fly south, it is time to move to a warmer climate. Snowbirds head for Arizona and California for the winter. River flooded from a storm. 115-degree heat in Las Vegas.
“The morning I woke up and the power was out and I had ice on the inside of my windows, I knew it was time to head for Phoenix.”
I was greatly impressed and astonished about the number of long-time residents of Mississippi and Louisiana who relocated after Hurricane Katrina. Houston, Atlanta, Oklahoma City and other towns became the new homes for people displaced by the storm. New stories in the paper told how people were just plain tired of rebuilding and wanted to move on to somewhere they could settle.
The other ploy I like to use is the perception that a murder or killing is in the recent wake of someone moving to another location. Scabbed over cut on a lip, a black eye and man who favors his left leg kind of gives the impress that he has been in a scrape. He bears the physical evidence of a beating. This is what happened to him and he is still standing. You want the reader to ask about what happened and where.
One caution here. When you include children under the age of 10 in the “where” equation, you risk a whole other emotional overload from fans. Some cannot tolerate children being subject to the antics of a violent person. I’ve seen this in stories about children in families where the parents murdered an older child. Some fans are turned off by this and animal violence, as well.
Try this on for size:
Your character used a crow bar to wedge open that back door of a store in Bakersfield. No alarm. No dog. Inside he took clothing, socks, and a pair of shoes. Five minutes, he was gone. Four days later, your character is rousted from sleep in an alley in Reno by a police officer and told to move along. He did.
Three days later your character gets on an apple picking crew outside of Walla Walla, Washington. When the first dusting of snow drops, your character heads for Seattle and a long-lost friend. Except the friend is gone.
In a bar, your character hears about a fishing boat on the docks leaving for Alaska for the winter crabbing season. The boat needs strong hands. Your character now lives for six months in Alaska.
All along the way, you have your character do something that portrays his desperation. Petty crimes. Robberies. Shoplifting. Something that drives him on to the next location. Give your character the “running form the crime” attitude. It is a drifter existence. A nomadic life. And you as a writer and author leave a trail of broken locks, broken bones and lucky breaks in his wake.
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?
A while back there was a huge shoot-out between a couple of motorcycle gangs in Texas. Over fifty people were arrested for assorted charges. As each one came up for indictment, their personal history began to come out.
One man’s legs were gnarled and severely scarred. He had trained fighting dogs for years and suffered bites and attacks from his pupils. Read these stories and connect someone’s real life background to your fictional character.
I like to use the tool of selective memory. The man only talks about something that he did to get by.
“Why, yes, Mark. I’ll marry you. But before we go any further, I need to know exactly how you lost your big toe on your left foot.”
“I told you about that. Why do you have to keep bringing that up? Don’t you believe me when I tell you about something horrible that happened to me? Can’t you accept what I told you?”
I have a character that used to do armed hold-ups of stagecoaches from Missouri to Phoenix. He was nursing a flesh wound at a campfire when a deputy stopped in. The man didn’t want to admit to getting shot while in the robbery attempt.
“Aw, you know women. They throw things when they get upset. I’m letting her cool down for a day or two, officer. Nothing we ain’t been through before.”
Also, not everyone walks around with a beautiful halo hovering above them. Even the best of men have shortcomings and failings. Maybe your character discovered the cure for lung cancer, single-handedly terra-formed Mars and solved the world hunger problems. He also suffers from hemorrhoids and ingrown toenails that make him want to kill something.
I wrote a story years ago about a man that had stolen a pencil in the third grade. Later, he sold off his girlfriend’s purebred Siamese cat because he hated the cat. He hotwired cars just for the fun of it. The character graduated to being a driver of the getaway car. Someone showed the character how to fuse a stick of dynamite so he took to blowing doors off buildings. The character could squeeze into small places. He squeezed into the wrong place and woke up to find himself on a container ship headed to South America.
As you write your character, inject his personal pet peeves. Write about what he cannot stand. You know people who can’t put mustard and mayonnaise on the same piece of bread. You know people who don’t use electronic appliances on New Year’s Day. You know people who fixedly recycle everything. Use those on your character.