Mud Wrestling with Your Character (the Literary Kind)

I've been instructed to tackle this subject by certain people who've read HAPPY HOUR OF THE DAMNED and think I'm particularly good at fleshing out characters. What's tricky about this subject is I don't really have a method.

What I am is an observer.

Of life, body language, tone, inflection, accent, expression, scent, image. I'm an eavesdropper, too and a soul stealer.

And you've got to be, too.

Building character requires an eye for detail that most people just don't have. Do you ever notice when you're walking through the mall, people--as a whole--are transfixed by their own personal dramas. They internalize and dwell, cutting them off from really looking at the world around them. You could--and do try this--have the filthiest conversation and not be noticed by the vast majority of people you pass. There'll be some that turn and make eye contact. Those are the observers.

If you're not one, this takes work to correct, much like a child's lazy eye (and believe me you want to fix that--because ick, honestly). Luckily, a writer can build his/her observation skills through practice. Have a seat at the mall food court--I'm obsessed with malls today, for some odd reason--with a pad of paper and take some notes. Listen to how people talk, their pauses, what they do with their bodies. Describe the way they look. Extrapolate. Look at yourself. What cues do you give to your feelings, thoughts?

Of course, character is not built simply in the external description. It's a culmination of many things, just like our own character. History. Religion. Politics. Childhood traumas.

Which leads me to...

The writer expresses characterization in two ways: directly and indirectly. Direct characterization is the imparting of physical attributes and personality traits through a tell, like so...
The blonde woman was an asshole.
While the statement may be true--the woman may, in fact, be both blonde and an asshole--it's clean, but since when has that been any fun (except when it is, but that's comedy structure, and we're not going there). What you want to do is get muddy. Indirect characterization is way more fun to write and read. I do very little direct characterization in my writing. I rely on inner thoughts, dialogue and action to connect my characters to the reader.

Like so...
Gabrielle slid into the booth, flipped a wave of blonde hair over her shoulder and snapped for the waitress. She wondered if the ditzy looking Mexican shuffling over could speak English let alone take a drink order.

"I'll have a Sapphire and tonic, now, and one in twenty minutes." Her finger stabbed the air between them. "I'm timing you, too. So make it quick, Consuelo. I know you bitches are slow. Go on now. Andalay."
See? That blonde woman really was an asshole. She's also opinionated, a racist, and possibly alcoholic. She drinks top shelf alcohol so she's not concerned with expense. Hate her though you may, she's decisive, knows what she wants, and how to get it.

But how did I get there? What are the elements of characterization? In this example, it's all about sharp verbs, ugly inner thoughts and cruel dialogue. Presto. Asshole, without having to say it.

Here's a tip: Create a Bio for each of your characters, fill it with physical, psychological, and vocal attributes, demographics, back story, and such. This will help to keep you on track when writing that character. It gets you down in the mud with them, rolling around, developing some intimacy. It's essential, come to think of it. Plus, it'll come in handy for the sequel.

Especially when you're writing first person. Whoever said that genre fiction isn't character driven, couldn't have been referring to first person novels. As far as I'm concerned, first person is all character all the time. Even within the description, I never leave the voice. Never. It's my battle cry.


That's all I'm going to say. I'm not sure if it's a coherent piece or not. And I certainly can't imagine why you should follow my advice. Except that I do know a little bit, and it works for me. It did feel a bit like reitterating yesterday, so I'll toss in an extra.

Extra: Brackets, people! These little Godsends of geometry have saved me from many occasions [add flowery wording about writers block]. While writing your manuscript, you'll undoubtedly hit a snag, something that stops you dead and makes you ponder for hours on end. Well with brackets, you can simply skip the section and move on.

[transition to end of Mud Wrestling piece]

BY THE WAY: My final hold out from the pimp contest, STEFF, has yet to email me with her address. Does anyone know the gal? Send her my way, please.

Ciao Bellas


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