Posts Tagged ‘Character’

OK, You’ve delved deep into your memory and all the events, stories and characters in your life and come up with a theme. In your head you’ve cobbled together a reasonable outline. So now you have a healthy skeleton to flesh out. Then comes the fun part: dressing it up.

Your carefully chosen anecdotes have people in them that are larger than life. They have qualities that most of your audience can easily identify with – impatience, talking too much, exercising too little. But the characteristic you choose to develop is going to be larger yet again. How big can you make it? Good! Now make it bigger.

And while you enlarge it in words, in word pictures and in anecdotes, rehearse it so that your whole body expresses this characteristic in all its ridiculous glory. Is the person hyper? Up the ante, make it more hyper than that. and bigger again, so hyper that…

How is your body conveying hyper-ness? You have to show it to get full value for the humor. How does it look if you pace in all directions, short steps, hands going, arms going, head in movement. As you list off all the major tasks this person completes before breakfast can you represent them with your body language?

Put the person in a setting where hyperactivity is either inappropriate or highly visible – a solemn church service or kindergarten at nap time. What might the consequences be? Now make the consequences worse. Logical in a topsy-turvy way but worse to the point of being ridiculous.

Make your character do something against all reasonable judgement – a serious person (math professor?) who does something incredibly flighty. Show someone defying common sense – enjoying to the hilt an experience that might be thought negative, or vice versa – struggling to escape he miseries of a happy situation.

Write the unexpected, and twist it again, but make every person, every setting, every word vivid so the audience gets the picture.

Jot down one liners that made you laugh. You might not want to copy them, but you can use  them as a basis for your own unique one liner.

Pack your humorous speech full of all the humor you can collect, invent or devise. Then write it a bit shorter than your usual speech – allow people time to laugh.

Making people laugh is such a gift. Do it well and the rewards are huge.



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Let’s take an ordinary bland event and build it into an anecdote that would stand proud in a longer story or in a speech.

Basic anecdote: Mother in the kitchen drops a dish. Daughter comes in to see what the noise is. (At this point we won’t make it a touching or a humorous anecdote.)

The elements are mother, daughter, kitchen, dish and crash. Also the back story – what led up to this.

The back story sets the tone for the anecdote. Is this a stereotypical Mrs Cleaver mom who has slaved in the kitchen all day, a businesswoman late home after being stuck in traffic, an older mom starting into Alzheimers’s? Is the daughter a stereotypical bratty teen, an excited child, a middle-aged woman worried about her elderly parents?

You can set the anecdote in a ritzy kitchen, a farm kitchen, a hoarders kitchen. The dish can be precious china, full of a complete casserole meal for the family or just the dog’s water dish.

How, in a very few words, are you going to present all this? Let’s take the businesswoman mom. Tall. slim, well dressed, well made up, still in her business clothes. Impatient, annoyed, demanding.  Let’s contrast her with the excited child. Small, eager, a bit grubby after a day in playschool, happy her mom is home at last. The kitchen matches the mom, all the latest stainless steel gadgets, keeping up with the Joneses. The crash was microwaved food, spilled down the mom’s skirt, the dish upside down, supper ruined.

Pick your verbs and descriptors so that they carry weight. Let’s give the mom a name that matches her style. not Bethany or Martha. How about Gloria?

Gloria swept the toys aside with her foot, reached into the double door freezer and grabbed the package of three cheese lasagna. She rammed it into the microwave and poured herself, at last, a full glass of chardonnay. For just a second she paused to allow the wine to slide down her throat.

God, she needed that.

A smell of burning spoiled her moment of quiet. The lasagna – surely she hadn’t been dumb enough to leave the wrapper on? She lunged at the microwave and grabbed the dish, aiming to drop it into the sink where she could pull the plastic off with a minimum of mess but the sleeve of her new jacket caught on the corner and the whole dish of lasagna crashed to the floor. She gritted her teeth and swore silently.

Her daughter came running in, her shorts still grubby from the playground. She slipped on the lasagna and almost fell.

“Mommy, are you all right?”

“For crying out loud, how many times do I have to tell you? ‘Stay out of the kitchen when I’m making dinner.'”.


You could, if you wished, turn this into a touching anecdote, with the mom regretting her moment of bad temper. The writer can take it any way at all. But characters have been established that seem real and for whom we can feel some sympathy. Much of this has been accomplished by strong verbs. There’s action – you can see Gloria and even feel for her. There is detail – the double door freezer, the three cheese lasagna, the grubby shorts.


Strong characters, strong action, vivid detail – the three keys to a dynamite anecdote.

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A Bedtime Story

I was watching this ad on TV where the mom curled up in bed with her adorable little daughter and read about two lines of a story. Her ‘daughter’, on cue, yawned and fell asleep with her adorable lashes curled adorably on her adorable cheeks.

This is not the way I remember it happening. In my reality my kids stayed awake until the end of the story and then asked for another one, and another. They were more insatiable than adorable. Maybe the problem was that the stories were too interesting, too action-filled. They needed to stay awake to find out what happened next.

I’m guessing that you have never deliberately written a story designed to put someone to sleep. It would need to be a story so pointless, with characters so boring and with so little action that eyelids would droop and snores would fill the room. Usually this is not the goal of the storyteller.

So let’s look at those three aspects of your story or anecdote.

1. Does it have a point?

Does it inspire, motivate, teach? Yes, the point can just be entertainment. But then it must entertain – it must be exciting or funny or heart-rending. You can’t just call it entertaining because you can’t think of any other point to it.

2. Are the characters interesting?

Do they seem alive and real. Can the audience or reader get involved emotionally with them? Having your main character be a dragon or an extra-terrestrial doesn’t, by itself,  make him interesting. It’s how you build him, the detail and imagination that goes into making him three-dimensional and alive. That’s what makes him interesting.

3. Is there action?

There is a triggering incident, right at the start. People do things, say things, make mistakes. Consequences follow, often quickly and dramatically. People are driven to take action because of inner turmoil or because of goals and ideals that others around them never imagined. They don’t just sit and wallow in their goals and ideals, they get up and act – maybe not wisely, but in a way that triggers a reaction.

Do your stories and anecdotes have these qualities, or are the adorable eyelashes going to droop as your reader or listener falls asleep?

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The conversation went something like this:

“Tell me about your story.”

“Well, there’s this guy, see, and he’s hit by a car….”

“So the action in your story is the car accident?”

“Oh, no. That was just the start of it.”

Exciting as a car accident sounds, it isn’t a story. It’s just an incident.

A story has a character or characters in it that lift it way beyond being just an incident. Let’s look at a few examples:

– the at-fault driver is consumed with guilt and tries to find ways to compensate. He might become a missionary, donate huge sums to charity, campaign for seat belt use. Or he runs away and spends the rest of his life running.

– a person is hit and killed. Their spouse has to build a new life. Their kids grow up without a dad. The spouse is penniless without the family breadwinner. The spouse gets a huge settlement and lives a more luxurious life. The son vows vengeance and this colours his life.

– the person is badly injured and has to persevere through months of painful physio to get back to normal. Or he never gets back to normal but has to live a very restricted life. This leads to a deeper relationship with his wife. Or it leads to his wife leaving him. It might lead to his developing a new and successful career – or living a life of poverty.

The action is important, it can lead anywhere. The car crash is dramatic. But it’s what the characters make of it that creates the story. What does it tell us about the characters? How does it the fit the message of your speech? If it doesn’t fit either ditch it and find another story or change details here or there so it fits your message exactly.

It isn’t what happens that is important, it’s what it leads to, how it makes characters behave. Your understanding of human nature and your empathy will show you where your story will go.

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Story Kindergarten

My friend told me that I should include some articles for beginner story tellers.

“Make it like a story kindegarten,” he said. So here are the A B C’s of story telling.

A is for Action.

You need lots of it in a story – all you can get into it. Not only does it give you a wonderful vehicle for gestures within your speech (and that’s a plus in itself) but it helps to keep your listeners involved. They have no time for boredom if one interesting thing has just happened and it looks as if another interesting thing is just coming up.

The best kind of story action is people doing things. In a story they often do mistaken things, unwise things and sometimes downright dangerous things. A perfect person making one wise decision after another is a dull story.

Another kind of action is when something happens to the main character – and often it is a bad happening. It might be an accident or someone else’s ill will or temper. It is quite likely undeserved, but it impels the action to move forward and gets your story going.

B is for Belief

Many speeches come from your beliefs. We each have a whole range of beliefs – anything from a belief in a Supreme Being to a belief in the healing power of chocolate. We often base our speeches on one of our beliefs. Maybe the people in our audience share this belief, or maybe they need to be persuaded. Maybe it is an important belief for you or maybe it is just light-hearted and humorous.

The nature of that belief is going to affect and colour your story. It will determine your choice of story and the way you tell it. Your need to persuade or entertain will affect the way you tell your story too.

C is for Character

Okay, I admit it. I’ve already written more than one article on character for The Story Solver and I will probably write more. It’s just that important. Together with action, your vivid main character is what carries the story and makes it interesting. Or not. Take the time to mull over your main character and come up with two sentences describing him/her. The first sentence is a physical description – one that sets them apart from the crowd and makes them unique. The next sentence is an emotional or mental description that lets us know the part of them that we cannot see. That sentence might be action: “He braked hard and ran to pick up the injured kitten.” Yes, you can see the action but you are also seeing the inner man.

And while we are talking about ABC’s – Have you read to your kids today?

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Sometimes when writers find their stories (or even novels) have been rejected, or damned with faint praise they’ll ask “What’s wrong with my story?”

I have had the privilege of critiquing stories quite often and it seems to me that the basic problems fall into one (or more) of three categories. These are just my own thoughts – feel free to disagree.

1. I’m just not interested in the main character, or protagonist. So he’s eaten by lions or skis off a glacier – boring! The lions or the glacier are part of an interesting setting but setting isn’t the problem here, character is. You have to make me feel involved with this character, get excited about what happens to him, worry about his relationships or his choices.

Sure, a selective physical description helps – the timbre of his (or her) voice, for example. More interesting is the pride he takes in … what? The way his strengths and weaknesses play off each other.  His little vanities. Ask yourself  “How will his actions appeal to the reader’s feelings?”

2. The story starts somewhere else (probably about halfway down page two).  So often we wander into a story rather than starting with a bang. Jump in to the story. Grab attention. Make your readers think rather than spoon-feeding background to them.

3. There’s too much description and descriptive action. If he jumps off the top of the building, that’s action. If he toils up the stairs, struggles with the door and soliloquizes for a while – that’s not really action. Two choices here – either pump it up into action or cut it.

Just my thoughts. What do you think?

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Three men went into a bar and…. You know it’s going to be a joke. You listen for the set up and the punchline then (with luck) you laugh. You don’t expect any great depth from this story, no deep insights or motivation. There’s nothing wrong with jokes – we all need a good laugh. Most of your stories might have a little humour in them, but they are not jokes. You want them to illustrate a point, or give deeper insight or clarity. In order to do this effectively you need to make an immediate connection between your audience and your story. Usually this connection is through you. If you present the story as if it happened to you then you immediately hook the audience into the story. These should be true (or ‘true enough’ stories). Telling a personal story creates a strong and immediate link between you and your audience. People love to hear about the mistakes you made and learned from, difficulties you’ve overcome. They don’t want your speech to be drowning in those but one or two, carefully chosen to illustrate your points, draws your audience closer. If the story you’d like to tell doesn’t fit you, decide what type of person would fit best into the story. Could you make it about your mother or grandmother, your father or brother or sister?  You also have neighbours, colleagues, friends and the characters that inhabit your local coffee shop and hardware store. You can feature anyone in a story. Just make clear the link between yourself and the person. You’re going to use tact, of course – no negative stories about friends and family. You can change names and use poetic licence. “My neighbour Mike”, for instance when you have no such neighbour. (Just don’t tell a negative story about your neighbour Bob and think it will be okay as long as you re-name him Mike.) Try to resist the urge to leap straight into the story: “I used to know this man who….” Try for “When I was about six years old a man called Bill Dickson lived across the street from us…” Again, you have put yourself into the story, bridging from the audience to the focal character, and letting us know more about him. And even if you are telling a joke it need not be three men going into a bar. How about ‘my uncle and a couple of his buddies’ or ‘my neighbour and his two brothers’?  It brings the joke to life faster and makes the set up stronger.

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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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