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Monday, December 01, 2008

Using the Holidays to Study Characters

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

As usual the holidays have gotten me off schedule, but I have gained some wisdom and pounds from my Thanksgiving break. I’m dieting this week to shed those extra pounds. The wisdom, I’ve decided to share with you.

Most likely, you spent some time around family and friends during your Thanksgiving meal. I bet you witnessed some amazing characters, intriguing dialogue, and some idiosyncrasies that were just plain weird, and probably a few other things in the mix.

No matter how many novels you read, writing books you devour, movies you watch, writing workshops you take, or writing conferences you attend, nothing can teach you more about characterization than living life itself. Your friends and family, and especially new acquaintances, will teach you more about creating characters if you will only study them.

While your holiday experience is still fresh in your mind, I suggest you log what you remember.

Create a list of categories and subcategories. Below is an example of some of the categories you can set.

  • Dialogue
  • Behaviors
  • Scenes
  • Emotion
  • Quirks
  • Expressions & Body Movement

    You might list subcategories for one-liners, jokes, tones, hysterics, accent, etc. Among some of the people you talked to over the holidays, whose conversation sticks out in your mind the most? Why? Was it what they said? How they said it? Were they witty? Were they scholarly and intellectual? Or was it an obnoxious person who had a snide comment about everything that was said? Were his one-liners funny or uncomfortable? Was this person loud, always talking over others and cutting them off?
  • BehaviorsYou might list subcategories for friendliness, rudeness, assistance, laziness, sadness, happiness, loneliness etc. I witnessed someone making a political statement in front of someone he knew felt differently from him and then watched to see how that person would react. If I wanted to use this behavior in a book, it would be a great way to antagonize another character. Other behaviors I noticed were people getting drinks for others when they didn’t have to.

    You might list outdoor scenes under each season, or break them down by events such as skating rink, snow tubing, skiing, swimming, walking, jogging, etc. Indoor scenes could be broken down by location such as businesses, restaurants, churches, shopping malls, theaters, etc. Traveling could be broken down by planes, trains, vehicles, tourist attractions, museums, festivals, etc.

    One scene that won’t leave me would be perfect for a movie. We went snow tubing in the mountains. The first couple of times I went down, it was great. Each lane was built up with a snow wall. As the evening wore on, the temperature dropped and the snow froze, making it slick. My husband thought he’d give me a huge shove. I went flying and I tried to lean my weight to keep my tube in my lane, but I was going so fast, I lost control. My tube jumped the snow wall, went into another lane, kept going, until I hit a woman standing on the side. Her legs went right from under her. She sailed into the air and hit her hand on the hard ground. Needless, to say I felt horrible. We were all embarrassed. And my mother-in-law wouldn’t stop laughing. Now what if this was a scene where the heroine met her hero as she plunged into him? I think it would be great.

    You might list subcategories for happy, sad, angry, hurt, shock, distraught, discomfort, etc. There was a moment where my dad came in and noticed my Christmas village. I had two churches set up and he pointed to one of them and said, “Wasn’t that Grandma’s?” I nodded and he looked down as an awkward silence followed. Without another word, I knew he was thinking of her and missing her. It suddenly made me miss her as well.
    QuirksYou might list habits, traditions, superstitions, unconscious behaviors, disabilities, etc. Okay, I’m going to tell on myself. Everywhere I go, I collect postcards from where I’ve been. Even if I’ve been there before, I still buy new postcards and I put the year on them as to when I visited there. My husband has accepted my little quirk. Now when we go somewhere, if he sees the postcards before I do, he makes sure to point them out to me. I think this might be his unspoken way of getting me out of the store faster.

    We went to the Biltmore House and my father-in-law has a heart condition and is on oxygen. He’s a little stubborn and always trying to push himself to do more than he should. He left his tank and wheelchair on the second floor and decided to walk up the stairs from there. He became winded and needed to ride the original 1895 elevator back down. If I used this in a book, I could heighten the tension in the story by having the elevator stall before he reaches his oxygen, especially given the age of the elevator.

    You might not be writing a story where any of your recent holiday experiences would fit in a scene, but it may be appropriate in your next story or one you write three years from now. If you log your experiences, you’ll have them for later when you might need them. I hope I’ve given you some creative ideas.