Thursday, July 15, 2010

It Starts with the Pants

She was perfect.

Maybe it was her flower print pants, her too tight shirt that let "the girls" breathe, or maybe it was my third cup of early afternoon coffee, but the woman who walked across the floor of my college's welcome center quickly became my muse.  A midday burst of inspiration if you will.   

So I wrote a narrative poem about her and I named her Helga.  Here's an excerpt:

Still, Helga had no use for change, she only
smoothed over the situation with compliments
and false good feelings as if icing a
cake to hide its imperfections. She bought
new clothes, accoutrement for her brand new
figure. At first, she attempted to try
on clothing two sizes smaller than she
was, like the flower print pants that enfolded
her legs like sausage casings. Sometimes she
succeeded like the time she squeezed into
that Nicole Miller tube top. She had a
full two minutes of victory until
she realized the top would not budge and she
had to cut herself out of it with the
hot pink Swiss Army knife Richard bought her
last Christmas. It was embarrassing stuffing
scraps of a perfectly good tube top into
her hand bag and even more embarrassing
being chased by store security.
Helga was not two sizes smaller.

Developing a character is always a tricky business because it forces a writer to play therapist.  We have to turn off our own thoughts in order to listen in on those of another.  And although a character's thoughts are important to keep track of, there's also their clothing, their schedule, the way they pick their nose, the amount of time they spend brushing their teeth.  In order to focus in on the nitty gritty, I make sure to do the following:
  • Observe.  You don't have to "live" to be a writer, but you better make sure you're good at keeping tabs on people that do.  You never know who will pique your interest whether it be the girl making your sandwich or the elderly gentleman in front of you in line at the bank.  Other people's experiences are yours for the taking so keep your eyes open and your notebook ready.
  • Remember the details.  Like I mentioned before, it's not enough that you know what your character's thinking.  Everything that makes your character tick needs to be chronicled.  Now don't get me wrong, you're not going to publish a laundry list of your main character's daily dealings but you need to envision what his day would be like in order to get into his or her brain.  Even if the majority of this information doesn't leave your notebook, you still need to make note of it.  Like Ray Bradbury said, "Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her all day."
  • Hone your character's voice.  You are not your character unless, of course, you're writing a memoir.  But in fiction, you need to define boundaries between what you'd say and what your character would say.  Would your character use slang?  Would they refer to their parent as "Mother" or "Ma"?  Is your character a half glass empty or half glass full kind of person?  Details such as these usually filter into a person's speech and lend themselves to the tone of a narrative.  Be sure to make these decisions early on so that your piece flows.
You have to be willing to exist beyond yourself to walk in someone else's shoes and the notion is often intimidating.  But if you take the process step by step and take care to remember the specifics, you can create a person your audience wants to know.


  1. Ah, Helga. You poor, poor thing.

    You make excellent points about being an active observer and taking in as many details as possible. Characters, like people, aren't one-dimensional. The best part is when they surprise you.

  2. This is great advice. Thank you and I love the blurb about Helga!

  3. I love Helga! Poor thing.

    Great advice. I do find it hard sometimes to keep myself out of my characters. I find it particularly hard to write grammatically incorrect dialog. I guess I should make my characters better educated. :)

  4. More Helga! More Helga!

    That was fun, Ericka. Like Jessica Anne just said, I find it difficult to keep my brain out of my characters. Especially when writing in the first person.

    Loving the site--y'all are doing an awesome job.

  5. It is just about IMPOSSIBLE for me to not put myself in INCREDIBLY impossible.

  6. I think I've seen this lady at the mall - NO JOKE! Yeah, and she had one of those yappy yip-yip dogs in her handbag? That's the one.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog earlier!

  7. I love the way you said..."You have to be willing to exist beyond yourself to walk in someone else's shoes and the notion is often intimidating." So very true. And then, once we grow some balls, the real fun begins.


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