Archive for the ‘Character’ Category

The speaker was a young man who was illustrating his motivational speech with a story about his father. Because of his dad’s height he was able to reach up and save a toddler from a dangerous situation. The story fitted neatly into the theme of ‘use all of your attributes’.

The speaker was disappointed when he did not win the contest. “Why didn’t I win?” he asked. “My content was good, my voice was strong and I used the whole speaking area.”

He lost because he did not connect fully with the audience. He missed opportunities to bring his story to life and to make it feel important to his audience. He could have brought them closer so they felt the story rather than just hearing it.

He started the story be saying “My father was a tall man.” This is good insofar as it is relevant to the story. To have said ‘My dad was a rich man.’ would have been irrelevant here.

He could have said ‘My dad was six foot three inches tall’. This is better because it is more precise. But it could be better yet. Knowing a person’s height does not bring us close to them. Suppose he had said ‘He’s six foot three in his thick woolen work socks’. Now we’re closer to him. He could follow up with, ‘He was on his way to his job at the mill at six o’clock one winter morning when he saw…’

Now we feel for the man that cold morning. The speaker can add to the feeling by making a shivering gesture (which gives him something to do with his hands).

If all he says is ‘He was tall’ or ‘He was six foot three” then the speaker has left himself out on a limb. He needs to add something. ‘He was tall and he walked with a limp.’ Is that relevant?

‘He was tall and he worked in the mill.’ That’s relevant but something of a non sequitur and not very interesting.

As the hero of this story the dad needs to come alive to the audience. Telling the facts is nowhere near enough, they have to feel for him. ‘My dad had worked at the mill for many years’ becomes ‘My dad had got up at five o’clock every morning since he left school to make sure the saws were sharp and there were no power glitches so that the day shift could get right to work.’

Now you have a working man who takes his responsibilities seriously. He’s someone others can connect to. They can feel slightly invested in him.

Saying that he is tall, or six foot three, tells only fact – it does not reveal personhood. The audience wonders ‘Who is the person behind this fact?’ The words you choose should reveal the person behind the fact. You can take this any way you want that will serve your story and reveal the person and perhaps his relationships.

“My dad was six foot three. He towers over my mom but there’s never any doubt about who rules the household. He takes his shoes off, he mows the lawn, he walks our dog, as directed by her.”

“My dad is way taller than I am but you wouldn’t know it because he hunches his shoulders so much. I think it’s because my grandpa used to give him a bad time about being tall – no-one else in the family was tall – and it still bothers him.”

You can use a simple descriptor to build character for your speech story. Don’t pass up the opportunity to reveal the person beneath the description.

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Saints and Martyrs

Let’s suppose I was going to tell you a story and I started off , “I’m going to tell you the story of my Aunt Agatha. That woman was a saint! She got up every morning at 6 am, made breakfast for her family, worked at her job all day, kept the cleanest house in town, adopted four orphans and ran the Sunday School.”

Are you interested yet?

Not really?

Hmm. Could it be that I’ve made her a little too perfect? These days no-one seems to like characters that are so perfect they make the rest of us seem like slouches. We like to feel good about ourselves and we tend to resent it when someone tells us a story that makes us feel a bit, well, less than wonderful.

If you really want to tell dear old Agatha’s story give her a few failings. Remember that she was overweight, or had a harsh voice, had old-fashioned opinions, was a bit bossy. People will like her much better that way.

In historical times it was thought to be really good if you were a martyr. These days the psychologists would have a field day with it so don’t inflict sainthood or martyr-hood on poor old Aunt Agatha.

This goes double for a personal story. Yes, you can talk about an achievement you are proud of, difficulties you have overcome, but in a way that says ‘You the reader or listener can accomplish this too’.  Show the mistakes you made, show the lessons you learned along the way.

Avoid the hubris of “See how smart I was?’

These days, no-one likes a saint or a martyr.

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“The man was tall and slim and walked with a limp. He had been hit by a car when he was a teenager and the orthopedic specialist had said that the bones in that leg would always be shorter than those in the other leg.” 45 words

“John limped to his car. As always, he tried to walk without limping but on wet days the ache in his bones made it almost impossible. Some days, despite his height and strength, he felt like an old man.”  39 words

I wrote the two paragraphs above to demonstrate two ways of describing a single character. The first gives you the man’s back story – how he came to have his limp. It shows you the facts behind the description.

The second description puts a name to the man and this in itself draws you closer to the story. The facts you read (his name, he has a car, tall, strong) are all about right now, not the past. More importantly, that bit of description lets you go right into his feelings and emotions. You are not just observing him from several feet away, you are within him, experiencing his emotions. You can’t get much closer than that in less than 40 words.

The closer the reader or listener gets to the story, the more strongly they feel it and become involved with it. Let’s try another description:

“She walked down the street to the church wearing a pink flowered dress and a lacy white scarf. She was carrying her mother’s pink purse. Her blond hair shone in the sunlight and her blue eyes sparkled. On her feet she wore 4″ stiletto heels.” 45 words

“Claire took almost an hour to dress, finally choosing the pink dress that seemed appropriate for church. She washed her hair, tried to flatten her curls and dug out an old pink handbag of her mothers. The 4″ stiletto heels she couldn’t resist.” 43 words

Again, putting a name to the person brings us closer right away. The first description seems to me to be flat – the person is a cardboard cut-out. The blond hair and blue eyes are a cliche and where else would she wear four inch heels but on her feet? You get no feeling for her or about her.

In the second description Claire isn’t in the street, but you know she is going to church. You can see her nervously choosing clothes she hopes are right. For what? You begin to wonder about this person. Why does she think all that pink is appropriate? Why use her mother’s purse? Why is she flattening her curls? Why has it taken her so long?

The second description gives us almost the same facts as the first, but it has also drawn us into the story. We are asking questions, wanting to know more. What comes next?

Only the story teller knows the answer. That is the magic of story telling.

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I sat in the coffee shop this morning looking around at the regulars and thinking of them as characters in a story. There’s the older man, white-haired, neatly dressed who always reads the national newspaper, the middle aged man in a wheelchair, who tries to play Joe Cool with the baristas, and the baristas who smile and play along with him.

They all have the basics of being useful characters in a story, but it’s not likely I’ll use them. Take the older man. He might be used as, say, the father of a single mom, the husband of a housebound woman, the supposedly-retired company owner who still pulls the strings in the company. In my imagination I could make of him whatever I wanted.

But just because he has the right general description, it doesn’t mean he’s right for the part. When you are casting director for your story you need to get it exactly right. Near enough won’t do, even if it is only a bit part..

If you are writing a story about a single mom and the plot requires that she have a dad you need to look at the emotional component. How does each one feel about the other? What is the back story between them? The dad may just have a tiny part in the story but you still need to get the emotional connection precisely correct. If he just walks on and says his lines and the reader gets no hint of an emotional connection all you have is a two-dimensional cardboard character. He isn’t earning his keep.

If your character isn’t earning his keep you might as well get rid of him and simplify your story. By earning his keep, I mean that he enriches the tale by adding another dimension. He might illuminate some aspect of his daughter’s character. He might reveal her to be presenting a false front, he might earn sympathy for a daughter who is not, apparently, a sympathetic character.

Perhaps all he has to say is something like, “I won’t be home for supper” but that elicits a response in her. Resignation (‘He’s drinking again’), joy (‘Thank goodness I’ll finally get a meal alone with my kid’),  suspicion (‘So where WILL you be?’), anger (‘How dare you leave mom and I alone again”) – the possibilities are many. His one comment carries the plot forward and deepens it.

His presence and his few words enhance the emotional tone of the story. You can’t just finger the guy from the coffee shop for the part, you have to build him carefully, from scratch, to play the part exactly right.

In the world of TV commercials, sometimes it takes a day to cast a part in a 30-second ad spot. Don’t give your characters any less consideration.

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Establishing character

Pull your listener or reader in with a quick, one-sentence description of the main character. A brief thumbnail sketch will do the job for you. Try for a sentence that packs a one, two, three punch. Think of three relevant characteristics, if possible with the third being very unlike the first two.

“He was a quiet, thoughtful man with a wicked sense of humour.”

“She was a cook in a logging camp who slept every night with five cats on her bed.”

“He was a six-figure lawyer in a $1000 suit who drove a 1990 K car.”

Choose from:

– physical or mental characteristics

– occupation, paid or hobby

– foibles or habits

– likes and dislikes

– accomplishments

– something he owned or which belonged to him of which he was proud.

This gives readers the flavour of the person quickly and doesn’t get them bored with a long description before the story gets off the ground. You can flesh out the description later if you need to.

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The closer your reader feels to the story, the more deeply they will listen – and pick up the message behind it – the message you’re trying to get across. Suppose your message is “You should listen carefully to what other people are telling you.”

The ‘You should’ is going to put people off right away. No-one wants to do that – it sounds like no fun at all.

So you are going to dress it up with a story.

Your story might start, “This woman was phoning another woman and telling her about a problem she was having with her teenage daughter”. It’s better than starting off ‘You should listen’ but it still isn’t going to pull in many readers.

But what about,”Last night my friend Maria phoned, all upset about her daughter Lisa. Lisa is 15 now and starting to date ….”

The story has been made more immediate by being set in recent time. It could have been this morning or this afternoon, or right after supper, it doesn’t matter. It is a clearly identified, recent time.

It is more immediate because it happened to you. (Now if you’re a woman readers will accept that story. If you are a techie guy and everyone knows it, then maybe it had better be your friend Josh and the problem is caused by his elderly mother, Doris.)

The main character, Maria (or Josh) has been given a name. She is not some vague woman that no-one cares about, she is Maria. And you have introduced her as your friend. Because you care about her, your reader will care, just a little, too. You have your reader hooked.

You can progress from there to flesh out your story. If it is just an example (‘I didn’t listen to her and I should have. Negative consequences ensued’ ) then the fleshing out can be minimal. You get to the point and move on. Just make sure to speak of Maria as you would if she truly were your friend, and not in the casual, remote way you would refer to ‘some woman’.

If, however, this needs to be a longer story to carry a deeper meaning keep the immediacy going by adding description and action that will resonate with your readership or audience. She might be

‘a single mom with spiky hair and body piercings’

‘organist at the local church with a handicapped husband and a big debt load’

‘Vice President of Marketing who drives a Lexus and wouldn’t move from the house without her Blackberry’.

And give your readers a glimpse into your relationship:

‘She was the one who drove me home the time I got sick at the party’

‘She not only got the best marks in school, she got the best looking dates. I was so jealous of her’

‘I’ve only known her a month or so, but if I see her at the bus stop I give her a ride to work’.

These are the details that bring your story to life and give it credibility. If your characters and their situations are strong enough you can slip a message in without anyone noticing.

The jam completely conceals the pill.

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