Exercises for sparking up character in the short story

Copyright © 2011 Jerry Dunne

This post is a follow-on from the post Sparking Up Character In The Short Story. http://is.gd/HTd7je

So now we know we need to find the attitude of the character as related to the idea and plot (or find his motivations, find his core, his essence, whatever language we use to describe it), the questions we must now ask ourselves are: how do we get to this essential core of character so we can spark it into life? Where is it? What guides will help us find it quickly?

Here are some exercises that should help you discover this.

First impressions

Think about people you have met and consider which of them has made an immediate and positive impression on you. What made them stand out? Was it their clothes or the colour of their eyes? Tone of voice? Dialogue they used? (Dialogue is very good for immediately bringing character to life). Body language? A bright light in their eye? Was it their attitude to something that interested them that in turn made them interesting to you? Did you quickly discover what motivated them? Did you quickly find out what they were prepared to do to achieve their goals?

Make a note of the highlights that speedily bring their character to life for you, including snatches of their dialogue that sum them up. But try and be specific. Look precisely for what swiftly brings character to life. Don’t just say, he struck me as being very passionate about sport. Which sport and how does his passion manifest itself?

His eyes lit up when he talked about football, especially his beloved team. In fact, he got breathless discussing his team. He knows the results of every game his team has played in the last ten years, the dates, all the details. He boasted, “I attend every match. Every last one. I even follow them abroad.” He balled his fists when he told me, “I work overtime at a job I really hate just so I can afford to support my team. I want to leave but am worried… you know…  I won’t get another job quickly.”

His team won that day and his face was full of smiles. He kept hugging his girlfriend. He’d bought her a small present. There were highlights of the game on TV. He sat there on the edge of the sofa, proudly wearing his team’s shirt, red and white in colour. When his team scored in the replay, it was like he didn’t already know the result. He bounced up and down on the sofa’s cushion, cheering. Suddenly, he cried out, “There’s no moment more beautiful than the moment your team scores.” A tear shone in the corner of his eye. “When I die I want to be buried in the team shirt.”

This may not be the type of character who impresses you very much, but you get the picture. These sentences say a lot about this man’s attitude to the game of football (soccer). Of course, there is much more to a person than this but to spark up a character for a lead in a short story revolving around football, for instance, we might not need much more. Whatever the reason might be, if we were to take away his football, we would have the beginnings of conflict. We already know what his reaction would be and how badly his life would be affected by it.

Once you have made a note of the highlights that speedily bring your character to life for you, remove the most interesting highlight. How do they now look? Are they still impressive? If they are, take the second most interesting highlight away. Still impressive? Do this until they are no longer the character who made an immediate and positive impression on you. The chances are, once you’ve stripped away only one or two of these attributes, the character has fallen in estimation. This exercise is designed to show how little is needed to spark up a strong character.

Now go for a powerful personality who has had an immediate but very negative effect on you. Analyse what has made this character spring so immediately to life and what makes you hate them so readily. I’ll bet their attitude to something you hold dear (or your belief that they do) plays a big part in your dislike. Reconstruct their personality on paper within the context in which you met them. Write down specific terms they use in their dialogue and make sure their attitude comes across in the dialogue. Make note of their body language. Don’t write too much. Go for the highlights. But try and put a good impression together. Look at the example above for guidance. Then read out loud what you have written. Is this the character you dislike? Have you brought them to life quickly? If you could make a single change that would make you dislike them less, what would it be? Have you changed something about their attitude? Does this now make you despise them much less?

It takes little to make us react immediately to a character in either a positive or negative manner. Once you are fully aware of this, you can use your newly acquired insight to bring all sorts of characters quickly to life on paper in order to make a strong impression on your reader.

Use yourself as an example

What highlights of your own character immediately give others an approximate and strong account of who you are? Focus specifically on attitude to things and try not to be vague. Don’t say this character is hard working and believes in personal hygiene. Be more specific!

This character rises every day at 7.00 a.m.; he fusses with his teeth for fifteen minutes; he works twelve-hour days, etc.

Once you have done this exercise, describe the attributes to others and ask them to guess who this is and what the attitude of this character is to work, hygiene, and so on. It may be you are hard working but hate work, so don’t hesitate to put this in. Add dialogue to help bring your character to life quickly.

She works twelve hour shifts, but constantly sighs with despair at the thought of sitting before a computer screen all day. “Watching that screen all day is like watching continuous repeats of my boyfriend’s favourite football games. First you endure then you just die over and over and over.”

Do they see you as you see yourself? Do you see how quickly we develop character by letting them give us their strong opinion on something?

The stereotype

 Stereotypes are not real people, as real people are multi-dimensional. All the same, a stereotype swiftly gives us an impression. Think of the highlights that create this impression and see if you can play with them to recreate something original and multi-dimensional. In other words, we are using the stereotype as a template to create original character. Like in the exercises above, the point is to help us quickly create working character. Tweak it in all sorts of ways and see what you come up with!

Let’s take the example of the male joker who constantly cracks jokes and never takes anything seriously. Most people like him for his sense of humour and he is the life and soul of the party. We know nothing more about this character so far, but most of us can close our eyes and picture such a character because we ‘know’ or ‘have known’ him, for the simple reason he is a stereotype. One day, we catch the joker with a really pained look on his face. When he spots us watching him, he breaks out a big grin and throws an offbeat joke at us. Suddenly, the stereotype is dead. Now we see emotional depth, and we also have mystery. What caused the joker this pained expression? And why is he hiding it? Stereotypes have only a few simple but poignant details attached to them to which readers can instantly relate. This makes them already energetic and easy to manipulate.

Now if we add just a few more details to the above example, we have a fuller character on our hands. Let’s say our joker has a sick mother. His father is dead, he is the only child. The way he deals in his public daily life with his feelings about his sick mother is through humour. The sicker she gets the more he smiles and jokes in public and the blacker his sense of humour becomes. Already, we have moved completely away from the stereotype male joker and toward a real human being with depth and backstory.

But remember, we used the stereotype, not as inspiration (though we can do so if we want), but to work off its poignant attributes in order to create deftly another character with just a few poignant attributes himself. And we have done this from the inside out. Our new male joker has revealed something about his attitude to emotional pain: he deals with it through the palliative of humour. But, of course, if we were to present this character and this aspect of attitude of his in a story we would only do so because it would be strongly plot related.

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In these two posts we looked at how deft character sketching might be achieved. We discovered that the attribute that most gives a character its energy is attitude. And we worked out that the type of attitude we want is related to story idea which in turn is related to plot. In the exercises, we discovered that if we concentrate on developing a narrow set of character attitudes related to specific topics, we can quickly create energy with only a handful of details.

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This article is an edited extract from a chapter in Jerry Dunne’s book How to Write Children’s Short Stories (for the Middle Reader).

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

Click on the image below to buy any of Jerry’s books on the US Amazon site

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About jerrydunne

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