Friday, July 9, 2010

Defining Character Traits

We've been following up on a topic that Sharon started with her post about anti-heroes last week. Thanks for propping the door open for us, Sharon. All kinds of wonderful things are slipping out! And as Katy said, many are stepping out from real-life.

Last Friday night, we joined our son and his friends at Tango Yogurt (a happening place in our small town). We were enjoying our dessert on the patio beneath giant orange umbrellas and it wasn't long before we noticed something odd about a man sitting inside the shop. He was large, middle-aged, dark-featured, well groomed, stony-faced and wore dark sunglasses - at 8:00 at night. He sat alone in a small iron cafe chair that pitched him slightly forward at an angle that suggested he was ready to spring. He looked like a bouncer...or a creep. Why the sunglasses? Who could tell where his attention was focused? Was it on the lone girl behind the counter or the eager children who came in with their parents? Was he looking through the shop window at the young women in our group? We stole nervous glances at him for forty-five minutes and never saw him move. Families with excited children and teens milled around inside choosing flavors of yogurt and toppings, but he sat immobile. We grew nervous about what would happen at closing time if no one else was around. Was imagination getting the best of us, and should we stay, just in case? Whether out of curiosity or concern, we arrived at the unspoken agreement to wait.

Near closing time, he stood. He reached down onto a chair beside him which was blocked from our view and picked up a bouquet of orange lilies. He walked through the crowd, out of the shop right past us, smelling of aftershave, and we heard him say into his Bluetooth, "I'll be fine." He headed for a white minivan, walked around to the passenger side and carefully placed the flowers on the seat. Then, he got in on the driver's side and left.

Were we surprised? You bet. And chagrined. The man who at first appeared to be sinister, now looked like he'd been jilted. He was man with a heart who was waiting for a blind-date that probably walked through to secretly check him out and then decided against contact after all. His disappointment was palpable, and we felt embarrassed for having misjudged him and for witnessing the indignity of his situation.

I thought about the poor guy all weekend.

Good writers can surprise us with first impressions of their characters, revealing defining traits and making them memorable. Here are a few intriguing character descriptions or important scenes that give insight in a few lines. The authors carefully chose the physical descriptions for what they reveal about the character's nature.

"The stranger remained silent and motionless, enveloped in the blue smoke of a cigarette that never seemed to go out. I realized he didn't smell of tobacco, but of burned paper. Good paper, the sort used for books." from
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

"As one tends the graves of the dead, so I tend the books. I clean them, do minor repairs, keep them in good order. And every day I open a volume or two, read a few lines or pages, allow the voices of the forgotten dead to resonate inside my head. Do they sense it, these dead writers, when their books are read? Does a pinprick of light appear in their darkness? Is their soul stirred by the feather touch of another mind reading theirs? I do hope so. For it must be very lonely being dead." from
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

"He rowed standing, facing forward, a tottery business; twice as I watched one of his narrow sweeps missed the water completely and he lurched like old Quixote, hooting to himself...Forth he came through the parting mists. To this day I don't know what took hold of me as he approached." From
So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger

"I don't know how many times people have asked me what death is like, sometimes when they were only an hour or two from finding out themselves...I used to say it was like going home." from
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

"I edge up to the glass and raise my face, squinting against the sunlight. It's so bright it takes a moment for me to make out what's happening. Then the form takes shape. In the park at the end of the block is an enormous canvas tent, thickly striped in white and magenta with an unmistakable peaked top - My ticker lurches so hard I clutch a fist to my chest." from
Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen

"Don't you see," he asked, his voice soft. "This poor child will most likely have a serious heart defect. A fatal one. I'm trying to spare us all a terrible grief." He spoke with conviction. He believed his own words. The nurse sat staring at him, her expression surprised but otherwise unreadable, as he waited for her to say yes. In the state of mind he was in it did not occur to him that she might say anything else." from
The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

"At the moment Ethan Frome, after climbing to his seat, had leaned over to assure himself of the security of a wooden box-also with a druggist's label on it-which he had placed in the back of the buggy, and I saw his face as it probably looked when he thought himself alone. "That man touch a hundred? He looks as if he was dead and in hell now!" from
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

"Ruby looked at us from a distance as if we were contagious. She wore bright lipstick that made the spittle at the corners of her mouth a milky pink. Her hair floated above her scalp in a blurry auburn haze. She patted it gently, as if to make sure it hadn't gone anywhere. "Margaret, we best get going," she said. "This rain is ruining my permanent." from
Feeling for Bones by Bethany Pierce

With so many great literary examples, and all the interesting people in the world, we should be able to avoid creating boring characters. Can you give an example of a character who (for better or worse) sticks in your mind? It may even be one from your own manuscript. If so, let us know what significant trait you used to give insight into his/her character. We would love to hear from you!


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I'll never forget the swampy eyes of the standover man in The Book Thief.

And as I'm reading Latayne's Latter-Day Cipher I underlined some great ones:
"At first glance, the seven-year-old girl seemed oddly monochromatic, a sepia tone to her entire being."

I haven't been able to stop thinking of how perfect of a description that is--sepia tone!!!

And here's another I loved:
"His breathing sounded like leaking fireplace bellows pumped painfully through a bunch of hollow cocktail stirrers."

Ah, the writer mind at work.

My thoughts for the day. Happy weekend, ladies.
~ Wendy

Latayne C Scott said...

Hey, Wendy, you made my day!

About seeing a man sitting perfectly still: The last time my husband was in the Chicago airport he noticed an elderly gentleman sitting straight up with his eyes closed, his hat on his head, his coat folded neatly in his lap, his boarding pass in his hand.

But he didn't move for twenty minutes amidst the milling passengers and when my husband went over to touch him, he was dead.

You talk about milling passengers....

Tara Traxler said...

I guess the most recent characters that stick in my mind are those created by Caroline Funke in Inkheart. I don't think I've ever encountered such realistic characters in all of my reading.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Wow, Latayne, I wonder how long the passenger was sitting there before your husband noticed him. If you were to use him as a character, his ticket might show that his plane left two hours before (is that forensically possible?) or that he was in the wrong airport. Just thinkin'.

Wendy, you've bumped up The Book Thief to the top of my to-be-read pile. And Tara, now Inkheart is in the pile. Thanks for the suggestions, ladies!

Tina said...

I can't get over Latayne's example. Wow.

Bonnie Grove said...

I'm entranced this morning. Debbie, your description of the man in the yogurt shop was transfixing. My heart shelled over, then broke.

Latayne!!! NO WAY. I'm still picturing it. Zah. Wow.

I'm annoyed that I can't locate my copy of LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN - as there are great examples on every page. But, I'll get over it.

Wendy mentioned The Book Thief - I'm reading it now. Zusak pulls words like taffy. Here's a telling bit of description of a minor character: "And Frau Hermann, the mayor's wife, standing fluffy-haired and shivery in her enormous cold-aired doorway. Always silent. Always alone. No words, not once."

Bel Canto is a novel by Ann Patchett in which terrorists take a house full of party-goers hostage. In the chaos after the initial chaos, we are presented with the task of getting to know this large group of characters. Here, Patchett starts us off easy, "It was easy to see who was in charge - the older me, the ones shouting orders. They did not introduce themselves at the time and so, for awhile, they were thought of not by their names but by their most distinctive features. Benjamin: raging shingles. Alfredo: mustache, first and second fingers missing on left hand. Hector: gold wire glasses that had lost one arm."

I love the brilliant opening to Lawrence's The Book of Negros: "I seem to have trouble dying. By all rights I should have not lived this long. But I still can smell trouble riding on any wind, just as surely as I could tell you whether it is a stew of chicken necks or pigs' feet bubbling in the iron pot on the fire."

And can I indulge your attention for a description of one of the most favorite characters I've invented: Maggie Cunynghame, from Talking to the Dead?
"While you could not determine her age with any kind of precision (more than sixty, less than one hundred), she wore clothes that could rightly be described as "too young". Today she swathed her ample figure in a flowing, sateen shirt as yellow and bright as optimism. She paired the shirt with fuchsia polyester pants. Beside her chair sat a broad-brimmed hat the color of mulch. She resembled a giant tropical flower."

Stephanie Reed said...

Uncle Aiden (alias Snake) in W. Dale Cramer's Bad Ground is pretty unforgettable. Sorry I don't have the book here to quote a description.

But listen, the apparently jilted guy in the yogurt shop could just have easily been an Internet stalker waiting to meet a teen girl who thought she was talking to a boy her age. He would have been just as disappointed if she called to say she couldn't be there. I think we get our guards up for a reason.

Anonymous said...

Debbie, what a great post! And what a touching story. My heart breaks for the man. I bet of all the people milling about the shop that night, your keen author eyes were the only ones to see the story to the end.

LATAYNE! Why haven't we heard this before?!? Wow.

Debbie, put The Book Thief to the top of your pile. Trust me. I read it twice last year.

Kathleen Popa said...

I have my copy of Let the Great World Spin. Bonnie, you're right: it's on every page. This book is luminous. Here's one:

Corrigan and I shared a bedroom that looked out to the water. Quietly it happened, I still don't recall how: he the younger one by two years, took control of the top bunk. He slept on his stomach with a view out the window to the dark, reciting his prayers - he called them his slumber verses - in quick, sharp rhythms. They were his own incantations, mostly indecipherable to me, with odd little cackles of laughter and long sighs. The closer he got to sleep the more rhythmic the prayers got, a sort of jazz, though sometimes in the middle of it all I could hear him curse, and they'd be lifted away from the sacred. I knew the Catholic hit parade - the Our Father, the Hail Mary - but that was all. I was a raw, quiet child, and God was already a bore to me. I kicked the bottom of Corrigan's bed and he fell silent awhile, but then started up again. Sometimes I woke in the morning and he was alongside me, arm draped over my shoulder, his chest rising and falling as he whispered his prayers."

Warning: On the surface, this book swings wildly from the sacred to the profane. But the sacred is always there.

Here's another bit:

What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth - the filth, the war, the poverty - was that life could be capable of small beauties. He wasn't interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven. To him that was a dressing room for hell. Rather he consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same. He wanted, quite simply, for the world to be a better place, and he was in the habit of hoping for it. Out of that came some sort of triumph that went beyond theological proof, a cause for optimism against all the evidence.

"Someday the meek might actually want it," he said.

Chris Jager - Baker Book House-fiction buyer said...

Wendy - Loved the book thief. I recommend it to everyone I can.

One character that has stuck with me recently is the serial killer in the Knight by Steven James. The guy had killed several people and eaten parts of them, sorry gross I know, but claimed to have found Christ in prison. Ok this gives some of the story away if you haven't read it, but because of a technicality there is a mistrial and he could go free. When he meets with Patrick, the hero and the guy testifing against him, he actually asked Patrick to lie on the stand. That way he would stay in prison. So he feels he is not "cured" of his want to kill.

Can Serial killers be forgiven? Can he be forgiven and still want to kill? The moral dilema he presents Patrick and the readers is something that really caputed my interest.

Nicole said...

Love the Steven James series. Just started The Bishop for the August tour. And right off the bat we have an appearance by that "reformed" killer.

Real life: several years ago a young man was jailed for a crime I'll refrain from mentioning. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death which in terms of the crime was justified. His lawyer wanted him to fight it, but he said he knew Jesus but couldn't trust himself. He thought it was better that he die. He was executed, and if his confession and repentance was real, he's with Jesus now.