Fiction editor of the Los Angeles Review, Stefanie Freele was the featured speaker (for the second time) of my local Writers Forum last month. She's a sassy gal with a wicked sense of humor, so it's no wonder I find her workshops, as well as her writing (Feeding Strays and Surrounded by Water) fabulous. This time she taught us several techniques for rounding out characters. English novelist, E.M. Forster, first coined characters as flat (fixed throughout a story) vs. round (surprising, moving), according to Freele. The latter steers character-driven fiction, changing as the story develops.
1. Someone is to be a your stand-in, so you have to clue them in about your quirks: a fear of accountants, a phobia of brooms, why you take the long way home, etc.
Prompt: "You'll be me tomorrow. Here's what you need to know..."
I lie awake some nights with my mind on fire, chasing words into the shadows. On a good day I giggle, make up songs with silly rhymes, feel as young as twelve sometimes. So don't be shocked when you look into the mirror in the morning and see that your eyelids wrinkle at the touch of a hand.
2. Interesting characters need contradiction. Write down a few of your positive traits, and a few of your not-so-positive traits. Then write their opposites, and use them to create an alter ego. Flesh out your character: Who is this person?
Prompt: Aside from name, age, and appearance--Who does this person love? What is she looking for? What are his fears? What is most important to this person? A typical phrase s/he says? (Also: belief system, education, a secret, wants, daydreams, and/or what s/he had for breakfast.)
Ed, still called Eddie by his mother and Edward by his grandmother, is a 38-year-old go-cart fanatic--he builds, incessantly cleans, and races them on weekends. Favorite clothes are cargo pants with big pockets, and white t-shirts. His garage, with stainless steel drawers and shelves, is as spotless as a sterilized operating room. He's got a military haircut, same as his two boys. He's always looking to prove himself, especially to his wife, whom he doesn't love as deeply as his sons. He wants to be recognized, but at the same time is most afraid of being found out, and races to shield the truth from himself and others. "She's fresh off the lot," is his overused saying (usually referring to a go-cart, occasionally a woman).
3. Freele read an excerpt from Steve Himmer's The Bee-Loud Glade, in which he writes "he looked like he was born to be..."
Prompt: Use a character's attitude or appearance to describe who they are. Include the above phrase.
She wore her long hair pulled back in a braid that wrapped over her shoulder like a snake. She looked like she was born to be a preschool teacher: someone youthful, who had the presence of mind to contain a classroom of twelve toddlers running amok. Her hands stayed still at her sides or in her apron pockets in front--the kind that could hold jumbo crayons, a puzzle piece, or a few blocks she picked up.
4. Describe a flawed character, maybe someone who "has damage in her." Use authorial interpretation to tell about the character through the narrator's eyes.
Prompt: "I knew what s/he would do..."
I knew what she would do. She'd scan the wall of photographs and, finding nothing of herself, press her lips together with a silence more deafening than the shouting that was to come. Then she'd pick at her nails. "They never grow," she'd complain, observing the pink tissue as it tore off in thin sheets.
5. Consider characters as part of a subculture: teen moms, the office, farm workers. Write about your character within this group, describing the physical surroundings as well.
Prompt: "When they arrive..."
When the secretaries arrive, just before 8, they huddle around the furnace like grandmothers around a kitchen stove. They place their bag lunches in the fridge, unless they get a quick take-out on the corner. Today she'll be too busy in meetings. Only enough time for M-N-M's and diet Coke.
Readers: Share your responses to the prompts and I'll post them!