Wednesday, August 3, 2011
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?