December 2006


This evening, while sweating away on the stair master (that’s the one that looks like escalating stairs, but never gets you to the second floor of the mall), I engaged in 40 minutes of enjoyable people-watching. I love to people watch at the gym, or in any venue where interesting people congregate. While observing people, it is too easy to project my own judgments and create a persona of who I think a person is. In everyday life, this is a sign I am not accepting a person as is. But, in writing, it is impossible to create a character without drawing upon observations I have of other people (i.e., people watching) and who I think they might be.

What does building a character look like? Think about yourself and your own character. We create ourselves by our actions, words and choices. Sometimes we have behaviors that are not desirable to who we want to be; behavior is a symptom, whether positive or negative, of some underlying belief. In real life, we have many tools to for self-actualization and improvement. The concept of creating self can be applied to creating characters in story. If my character has a certain belief, or a certain set of beliefs, he or she will behave in certain ways- just like in real life!

Before building character, I need to have some idea what my story will be about and what the situation of the story is. For example, if I’m writing a novel set during the civil war, I cannot create a female protagonist who is a left-wing activist who convinces her female friends to burn their bras and forget about their husbands who are out fighting the war. But, it might be reasonable to create a strong female protagonist who is an example to other civil war wives, a woman who does what she has to do while her husband is at war.

Once I have decided my story line and situation, I can pull out all my perceptions drawn from people watching and throw them into a big old kaleidoscope and start spinning it around to see how the different characteristics mix together. Maybe my male protagonist will look like that tall man I saw running on the treadmill who did not make eye contact with anyone. I sensed he was lost in his own world and focused on his task at hand. But, in my story, my character’s wife has died in a car accident. In his grief, he keeps prefers to let no one into his life, thus he has difficulty making eye contact with others.

The wonderful thing is that building character is not black and white, but more like a characterscope filled with colorful possibilities.

Now, it’s time to go and give my new character some color!

© 2006 by Susan Littlefield

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