My beau loves good political news, environmental news, economic news. Honestly, I struggle with that kind of information, often not sure where to put it in my brain, let alone what to do with it. But an article that reveals to me that Dame Judi Dench plays Dungeons & Dragons? Like the one I read last week? That thrills me. I know exactly where to put that information and what to do with it.
I slip it directly into my mental file folder for “Examples of Fantastic Characters” and as for what to do with it? Well, apply and write. Which goes for you, too. So let us apply and write together, while drinking pear nectar out of our best china teacups.
That little tidbit about Judi Dench surprised me, gave even more depth to a person who already interests me. I snickered as I imagined her, dressed as Queen Elizabeth, drinking Coke and rolling dice in a basement with a bunch of deliciously dorky teenage boys. The point is, depth delights.
It’s easy to veer into the one-dimensional with characters, to let them be obviously something or obviously another. But the characters who stick with us and feel real, are the ones who surprise us into remembering their humanity, in some cases, whether they’re human or not. They break stereotypes and open up possibility.
Demon spawn Hellboy loves kittens. In Bryan Doyle’s gorgeous Mink River, Michael the cop is addicted to Puccini. Nerdy Harry Potter is a badass Quidditch player. Terry Pratchtett’s Discworld character Susan nannies by day, but also happens to be Death’s granddaughter, with proficiency in monster extermination. “Wretched” orphan Anne of Green Gables has more imagination and spunk than everyone on Prince Edward Island combined.
For me, the best characters are the ones who are like the best people I know. My wildly creative friend C can’t stand “floaty bits” in her soup, my grade school chemistry teacher sang and performed with an Irish band, and when it comes to movies, a gruff man-friend of mine will only watch romantic comedies.
So, back to our pear nectar and the topic at hand: how can Dame Judi help us to make our own captivating characters?
Same as with people, you can’t force someone to be charming or fascinating. You can’t analyze or think characters into it, but you can surprise the intrigue out of them.
Concocting compelling characters involves playing and wondering, and here are two ways you can do just that:
1. Ask questions. A good question is always a good writing prompt, and the best questions are the ones you’d never ask out loud. Ask something unspeakable about one of your characters, and then dive into a ten minute free write to discover the answer.
What would Carla never want Jerry to find out? What does Linda do when no one’s watching? Where does Chip go in his sleep-walking dreams? Why won’t Bailey go near baby pools? Who broke Felicity’s heart? What does she keep in her underwear drawer, next to that huge ring of keys?
2. Make random associations. Make yourself a list of interesting character traits, cut them into individual strips, and fold and drop them into a box. For any given character you’re working/wrestling with, pull out an item from the box, and let that evolve into your writing prompt.
For instance, my list might include:
- Fears lettuce
- Has a pet eggplant named Harvard
- Tap dances at a competitive level
- Was born in a recycling bin
- Only wears ball gowns at home
- Listens to recorded xylophone music while running
- Can’t see people named Earl
- Always coughs at the mention of muskrats
If Hillary is my character and I draw “fears lettuce,” I just start writing. Hillary fears lettuce, but she didn’t always. She used to love it and eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, slathered in blue cheese dressing. Until the Great Iceberg Incident of 2009 wedged her right into a corner she couldn’t escape.
Who knew there was a Great Iceberg Incident? That blue cheese could turn sinister? Hillary did, and she’s ready to tell you all about it if you just give her a chance.
One thing I love about being a writer is the endless supply of ready playmates, and how like live people, they’re just longing to be known, just waiting for the right question or the long-enough pause to reveal something shocking, wonderful, terrifying or beautiful.
Something about dungeons or dames or dreams or debutantes, that grabs your attention and holds it.
Something utterly, brilliantly human.
So go ahead and ask. Apply and write. I bet you’ll be surprised and delighted, and your readers will be, too.