by Barbara Poelle
Maybe you can help me with something. And by something I mean preventing my husband from throwing either himself or me from the George Washington Bridge. Here’s the deal: I am not what you’d call “fashionable” or maybe even “pulled together” or perhaps “bathed”.
I don’t have time for such frivolities.
But what I do have is this habit of winding a lock of hair around my index finger as I read. And perhaps as you might imagine, in my job, I read from time to time. But sometimes, much to my chagrin, my hair is pulled back with a hair elastic and I cannot get at that favored strand. In order to release the mane for the appropriate twistosity, I must remove the hair band and place it delicately next to me, on whatever surface is handy.
Now apparently these small, black elastic ovals peppering our lovely home create some sort of white hot anger in my life partner. I am not sure why. But I can say that, on average, once a week he will storm into whatever room I am in and go very quickly and very passionately through the seven stages of grief while clutching one of these elastics. It is a truly fascinating thing to behold. I have never seen anything quite like it. Last Monday he came into the bedroom holding one at about shoulder height and kind of shook it menacingly and said, “This has GOT to stop. This has GOT to stop.” And then proceeded to both inflate with defiance and wilt in defeat all at once.
It was almost beautiful.
So in my infinite wisdom (oh, it is infinite) I said to him: “If I died, you would be so touched every time you found one of those”.
He was, uh, nonplussed, to say the least.
(OMG, I have NO IDEA what nonplussed means, I have just always wanted to say the phrase, “He was nonplussed, to say the least”. That was so awesome, it felt like I was getting away with something, like buying $.25 worth of Laffy Taffy with a quarter I found on the ground outside of Super America.)
Anyway, despite the nonplussing, it got us talking about quirks, and I realized that quirks are the traits that make characters. And the more individual the quirks are, the more solid the character. They can be as clearly stated as Adrian Monk, or as subtle as Miss Marple. I mean, who doesn’t love the fact that Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes or that Arnold Drummond needs clarification on Willis’s thought processes? That is what makes them characters.
There is plenty of opportunity for us to steal from everyday life to enhance fictional characters and give them layers. Take for instance my sister (please). This is a woman who got ALL of the looks and ALL of the brains, but when she is reading something and really contemplating it, she drums her fingernails on her front teeth. Holy Christmas and the Easter Bunny, have you ever heard a woman drum her fingers on her front teeth for the length of Stephen King’s IT? No, no you haven’t. Because we would have met in the support group. But what an awesome trait to give a character. (That is the second “awesome” this blog. Third time’s a spanking.) Then I started thinking about how when we all used to sit down to watch a family movie together my dad would pull his socks off to the point where they just covered his toes and how my mom loves shoe string potatoes to the point where I think she may have killed a man in Reno just to take his fries. (That is the single funniest thing I have ever said. I can’t stop laughing.)
And Husband, don’t even GET me started on Husband, he has this obsession with post-its. This is a man who owns two palm pilots, a calendar and an iphone, and still, he covers every surface, both horizontal and vertical, with notes to himself. (Sometimes I add, uuhh, shall we say, some “blue” to-dos. Really funny when he sees them on the ‘fridge. Really horrifying when Holly Root does.)
About a year ago, I asked one of my authors who was struggling with book 2 to write down 20 character traits about their protagonist that may or may not be clearly stated in the work. The most amazing things appeared on this list that then allowed the author to understand the whys and hows of their character’s motivations. I am not going to share the exact discoveries, because then I would be no better than that dude in the weird mask who exposes magic’s secrets, but I will tweak them a bit to demonstrate:
[character] is afraid of frogs
[character] always has some shade of the color red on , toenail polish, underwear, etc
[character] has never had a relationship last for longer than 6 months
Do you see what you can pull from that? Now imagine 20 of those. You can shake open the fiercest fist of writer’s block with 20 traits, because you can write a short story on just the underwear and the frogs and the 6 month relationships (that just described every year of college for me) so you can open any chapter with that.
Nobody wants to read plots. Everybody wants to read characters. So make them readable. Make them interesting. Make them secretly cut out pictures of dogs in clothes, make them afraid of ice cubes, make them murmur the lyrics to “Baby Got Back” when nervous. Or best of all, make them leave their hair binders peppered around the house and make their Husbands love them more, not less, because of it.
(uhh, do you think that worked? I hope so, because I need to read this proposal and my hair is tied back…..)