The Professor joins us today to share a few tips on developing well-rounded and layered characters. As in his last tip, Interviewing Your Characters, The Professor once again emphasizes that police investigators have got what it takes to concoct believable fictional characters. Here’s why.
When officers search a suspect’s apartment or a murder victim’s home, they’re not only looking for physical evidence of the crime, they’re also seeking information about killer and/or the
current deceased resident. Therefore, they take a good hard look at the possessions in the home. Personal objects tell a vivid story.
While conducting the in-depth search, detectives are essentially reading a visual autobiography. They’ll learn things such as the person’s favorite color, their favorite authors, the extent of their wealth (if any), secrets (a diary or journal), left- or right-handed, natural hair color/non-natural hair color, travels, family history, clothing style and sizes (there may be clothing found that doesn’t belong to the victim, or that belongs to the killer), shoe sizes and brands, etc.
So, The Professor suggests that writers may want to build a list of the personal possessions that belong to the character-in-progress. Doing so will greatly assist authors in developing and building a character’s personality, and how and why the character goes about his/her daily affairs.
Lets say you’re developing a female protagonist, a woman who’s known for her superb crime-solving abilities. You might want the reader to see the sleuth’s home as a place crammed full of mystery novels and forensics manuals, magnifying glasses of assorted sizes, and a fully-functional DNA lab in the basement. However, her most prized-possessions are a large assortment of big, floppy straw hats.
As the readers step into your character’s kitchen they glance around, taking in the overall scene. On the laminate counter top, next to a shiny, Empire red KitchenAid artisan stand mixer, are two unopened bottles of an “As Seen On TV” weight loss product. (“But, wait! For the low, low price of $19.99 you’ll receive a second bottle of Lard-Ass-Be-Gone absolutely free, if you order within the next two seconds.”). Did the murder victim struggle with weight issues?
The pantry shelves are home to neat rows of canned goods, one non-stick pot, one glass baking dish, two plain white plates, two diner-style coffee mugs (Cafe DuMonde), two bowls, two glasses featuring scenery from Graceland, instant potatoes, 90 second rice, boxed soups of various flavors, and an assortment of tea blends from all over the world. Everything is arranged by size and species and they’d been placed in alphabetical order with all labels facing forward.
The kitchen is spotless. Like the rest of the house, not a thing is out of place. You couldn’t find a dust bunny if you tried.
A tour of the victim’s bedroom closet exposes only comfortable, flat shoes in shades of browns or black, and nine floral-print dresses in various hues of red. Her medicine cabinet contains denture cream, Ibuprofen, and partially-used container of Clairol age-defying dark-brown hair dye.
Have you started to develop a mental picture of the character yet? Do you have some sort of idea of her mannerisms? If you close your eyes are you beginning to see someone who maybe looks a little like this…
Now that we have an outline of our character, and we know a bit of her personality (she’s a neat freak who prefers comfort over style, and she loves, loves, loves, tea), we can start to add some color between the lines. To do so, writers should take a look at their character’s possessions and then ask why they possess each of those items.
The denture cream. Does she own it because she actually has dentures, or is there a gentleman caller with detachable upper and lower plates who often spends the night? How about the assortment of exotic teas? Does she drink the stuff, or is she merely an eccentric collector? Are the tea packets souvenirs from extensive travel? Maybe her gentleman caller is an airline pilot who picks up the various blends during his extensive travels.
So, you see, building a character can be fun. All you have to do is unlock your imaginations and go where your warped little writer-minds take you.
After all, there are countless characters out there who’re on standby, waiting for an invitation to step into your stories.
A weed eater that refuses to start no matter how many times I pull its cardiac-event-inducing rope. A leaf blower cut from the same cloth. An asthmatic air compressor. Pliers that no longer…ply (is that even a word?). And, well, you get the idea. My tools are broken.
It seems like just yesterday when I could sound the alarm, calling all my tools to be ready at a moment’s notice. And there they’d stand, handle to handle with looks of determination on their gleaming metal surfaces. Together, we could build or fix anything.
Recently, however, when I called my tools to action their response was lackluster at best. Why, it nearly took an act of congress to get them out of their drawers and off the garage shelves.
When I finally managed to assemble my once faithful tools…well, I could hardly believe my eyes. What had happened to my rugged and sturdy friends? The screwdrivers, for example, were nervous and barely able to stop trembling long enough to connect with the slots on the screws needed to secure pictures and other do-dads to our freshly painted walls. Other hand tools were equally as shaky. It was a true puzzle. After all, they were all perfectly fine when I put them away after our last team venture.
Nuts, bolts, nails, and other fasteners were also in on the mysterious rebellion. The boxes of screws that line my workshop shelves quickly stepped forward to mess with me as well. That’s right, sometime between the last project and the new one, my assortment of sneaky drywall screws had reduced the size of the text on their containers. I couldn’t read the labels! I think it’s an attempt to prevent me from using any, keeping their twisted family members together.
There’s more—worn out wrenches, dead drill batteries, and to top it all off, my hammers are heavier than they used to be. What, I wondered, could they have possibly consumed that caused them to add all that extra weight? Was it due to a lack of exercise? Adding insult to injury, some prick glued my sledgehammer to the floor. Can’t budge it.
So, standing in the center of my workshop I slowly examined each item on each of the shelves. I was a visitor to an old-tools retirement home. Then it hit me, and my mind took me back to when I was a kid staying with my grandparents, something I did every summer.
My grandfather was extremely handy. He could build, fix, paint, hammer with the best of them. In fact, he may very well have been the best fixer-upper man on the planet. In my eyes, he was the king of all things hammer and nails. I watched him work and, in turn, I learned his secrets. AND, I recalled that he performed his DIY miracles using…broken tools. Yes, his tools, too, were in a shoddy state—hints of decay, worn pull-ropes, dents, nicks, scratches, and so on.
My fingers in those days, small and stubby, were not of sufficient length to fully close around the handle of my grandfather’s rusty-red pipe wrench. Nor were my young muscles strong enough to heft the blasted thing from its spot in my grandfather’s homemade wooden toolbox, a box filled with damaged goods. While digging through the vast assortment of antiquities, I remember thinking that when I grew up I’d never let my tools get in such a state.
Well, it’s been fifty years since I first dug my paws around in my grandfather’s toolbox. It took me that entire half-century to realize that broken tools are THE sign that someone has reached the threshold that divides the uphill climb of youth to the point where it all goes downhill. And there, my friends, is the place where I am today, in the midst of broken tools. I have become my grandfather.
Now, I could sit around the house and pout and whine about my advancing years and the dismembered and rusty work implements in my garage. But that’s not me. I’m not yet ready to succumb to “broken tool syndrome.”
In fact, I did what all adult men should do at the first sign of the dreaded disease. I drove straight to a local home improvement store where I purchased a new, battery-powered weed eater and a new, battery-powered leaf blower. Why battery power? Because I’m too freakin’ old to pull those ropes! That’s why.
Yes, my tools are broken, but I’m not stupid.
*By the way, the hammer in the top photo once belonged to my grandfather.