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!