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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Colorful Characters

Characters are can make or break a promising story idea. If they are flat and uninteresting, they make your plot take on these same qualities, in my opinion. Multidimensional main characters, intriguing secondary characters, and colorful extras added to the story broth (plot) can take a basic and familiar recipe from so-so to gourmet. (Just go with me on the soup analogy, okay? I started writing this in my favorite soup shop over a late lunch, and the soup of the day was gone. All I could think about was how badly I wanted a bowl.)

Solid heroes and heroines are the hearty ingredients of the soup, like the meat and potatoes. A well developed main character will have a history that shapes how he views the world, and true character is revealed when he is faced with situations that require him to make choices based on his values. These characters leave the reader feeling satisfied. And isn't that what we want as writers, to have readers asking for seconds? My next blog will cover the 3 dimensions of character, but today I want to touch on my favorite characters, the colorful extras, or the spices.

Since it is summer, I suppose I can compare these characters to the toppings on your ice cream sundae instead. A little caramel, hot fudge and nuts make the reading experience delightful and satisfying. But just as too many toppings make it hard to distinguish one taste from another, or so sweet it becomes nauseating, too many whacky characters grouped together makes none of them stand out. Use these characters sparingly.

When I was seventeen, I worked at a McDonalds in an ugly part of North Little Rock. There was this couple that rode around that side of town on bicycles, which is nothing special to gain anyone’s notice, except the twenty-something year old man always wore a sombrero, a poncho, and a wide smile. But even as unusual as his appearance was, his wife upstaged him. She boasted pink hair like Frenchie in Grease and encased her size zero body in an electric blue spandex unitard. Oh, and did I mention she was in her eighties? These two gave new meaning to the term odd couple, but they were a delight to see. When they passed by the store on their bikes, I couldn’t help smiling. They added color and interest to a part of town that needed it.

After graduate school, I moved to a small town in the Ozark Mountains. It was my first and only time to experience life in rural America. (Side note: the dating pool was extremely small. Of course, it would have been bigger if I hadn’t ruled out men with no teeth, but I had to draw the line somewhere. Oddly enough, I met the love of my life there, which just goes to show you really should listen to that crazy voice in the back of your mind every once in a while, even if it tells you to pick up and move to a dinky town in the middle of no place where you don’t know another soul.)

It was quaint, and at least idyllic on the surface. Every place has its troubles. But this town had a bright spot, too. The Bike Man was an older gentleman in his fifties who dressed in overalls and rode a giant tricycle with a tall, orange flag attached to the seat and a license plate that simply read “Bike Man”. I can’t remember his whole story, but he had a disability and the town took up a collection and bought him the bike, I think when his was wrecked. He always rode in the same area, and every time I saw him, he brought a smile to my heart.

In my current town, there are two personalities that stand out. One is Peaches, the dancing girl as everyone describes her. She listens to her iPod as she dances around town as if no one is watching. I love it! And then there is the B&N flowered skirt guy. Some days, it’s a kilt, but other days it is a light cotton floral print skirt. (I suppose that might be a kilt. I don’t know. Has anyone been to Scotland that can set me straight?) Anyway, what I love is how dignified he appears from his head down dressed in his smart navy jacket, but how utterly incongruent he looks from the waist down in a lady's skirt, hairy legs and tassled loafers. I mean, you have to have a healthy dose of confidence to attempt this look, and he does.

Just as these people have given flavor to the different towns where I’ve lived, writers can add an extra character that can do the same for our stories. There may be temptation to toss one of these intriguing characters into the mix just for the fun of it, but even though he or she plays a bit role, the character still should have a purpose to your story. So, if you decide to create a colorful character, make sure you give him a job to do that furthers your plot. Otherwise, the person becomes a distraction rather than enhancing the reading experience. And it isn't necessary for readers to know all aspects of the person's character, such as backstory, motivation, etc. since she has a walk-on role only.

What real life colorful characters live in your town or past places you have lived?


  1. Smanatha ~ What a fun post! After the examples you gave, I can't think of any real life colorful characters of my acquaintance. At least none that would compare...hmm...I mean there are some whacky authors I know, but I'd better not name names in a public blog. ;)

  2. Good heavens - you've lived in much more interesting places than I have! I don't recall a single person standing out quite like these people would. The closest I can get is the golf cart 'gangs' that roam the streets of my redneck resort neighborhood. They come out every Saturday night and zip through the streets in all their electric cart glory.
    I will say that when I'm eighty, I may have to keep my eye out for an electric blue spandex suit for myself ;)

  3. Ava,
    Whacky authors? You aren't referring to me, are you? ;)

    I'm with you! If I can get a twenty year old man when I'm in my eighties - even if he does dress oddly - I will definitely wear spandex. :D

    The golf cart gangs, huh? I'm picturing drag races, leather jackets, and IZOD.

  4. Erin, I'd say your Jimmy is a character. LOL. One like we all need in our lives.

    Samantha, this is a great post. My younger sister would have to be a real life character like you've described. She's a heavy metal diehard who drove around in a hot pink pickup truck until it died a long, slow death. She goes into mosh pits and breaks guys noses when they are too rough with her, yet wears Hello Kitty t-shirts. Her hair has been every color under the moon, though I don't think any of us know what color is natural underneath. I can say with absolute certainty, I've never met anyone quite like her.

  5. There is a woman in my town who stands out like this! Ms. M (not naming names!) is about 80 years old, although she looks 800, and she is always dressed to the nines. When I worked at the bank, she came in all the time, the very picture of a Southern Lady (complete with the "bless your heart"s and the sadly ignorant racist comments). Despite cringing sometimes at her idea of appropriate conversation, she is otherwise a very sweet old lady. She owns a huge Revival era house, surrounded by farmland and housing developments, near my home, and sometimes you see her outside picking up trash or trimming hedges...in her long skirt and diamonds. She is nuts, but she's OUR nut! :D

  6. Catherine,

    Your sister sounds like a blast! I love that she's into heavy metal and Hello Kitty. That's classic.


    Your Ms. M sounds like a hoot. I can relate a little to her choice of clothing to work in the yard. I often go straight to the backyard from work to water my plants. I'm sure I look bizarre in my heels and dresses, but they aren't long skirts and I don't wear diamonds. However, now I have a new goal. :)

  7. When I lived in L.A., the colorful characters were the ones you ran away from!

  8. Aileen,

    LOL. We have a few of those in our area too. They seem to get off the bus on their way to some other place and decide to stay. I can't blame them. I live in a beautiful area with friendly people. :)

  9. Samatha, great blog about characters and you're absolutely right about having these characters in small doses. My best friend is black-haired beauty in combat boots. I love her to death and she's soo over the top in her personality that you really can't miss her, it simply shows through in everything she does!

  10. Suzie,

    I love that description, black-haired beauty in combat boots. She sounds like the kind of character you would write. :)