Every now and then when I was still writing content for a website, I would get an assignment. What follows is the result of one of them. I’ve dusted it off and looked at it again and realized it was a very good lesson. I’ll explain at the end.
Charity didn’t have a clue what the man in front of her was talking about. But she stood patiently, as she always did when men were talking to her, waiting for him to come to his point. Her attention might have wandered a time or two, but she gave the appearance of listening intently.
At 37 years old and still pretty, to her way of thinking, with her red hair and a delightful smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks, somewhat pouty lips, trim figure and tendency to wear formfitting clothing, she often found herself listening to men who seemed to have no point to their conversation. She figured it simply went with the territory.
Charity chided herself for agreeing to attend her friend’s birthday party. Christopher and his partner, Lewis, had talked her into it saying that there would be lots of young, attractive and straight guys there. It’s been Christopher’s goal for several years now to get Charity into a relationship. He’s so happy in his that he thinks she would be happy too if she were hooked up.
“Reginald. That was your name wasn’t it? I hardly think that the mating habits of … what did you say they were? Bonbons? Is a proper topic for discussion at a birthday party. And if you are trying to use the apparently randy little beasts as a come on to me, I have to tell you it isn’t working,” Charity finally said when Reginald paused in his animated soliloquy to take a breath.
He looked at her with some dismay and wandered off. If Charity were the kind of woman who paid as much attention to her surroundings as herself, she might have noticed the tweed jacket with elbow patches or the bow tie and horn rimmed glasses that Reginald was wearing. Had she done that, and had she given it any thought, she might have realized that he might just be a college professor and his area of expertise might be primates.
Just as Reginald wandered off, Christopher walked up to her and gushed, “Isn’t Reginald just absolutely fascinating. He knows just everything there is to know about apes. His students just love him.”
“Oh, so he’s a professor? Do they pay professors well these days,” Charity wondered aloud in an offhand manner.
“I don’t know. But I could find out for you if you wanted,” he replied.
“No. Oh. No. I wouldn’t bother. I’ve never really seen myself with a professor,” she said.
Christopher gave his friend a sideways look and thought to himself that maybe he didn’t know her as well as he thought that he did. He excused himself to answer the front door bell which had just conveniently rung.
Lewis, seeing that Charity was standing alone, said to his companion, “Jeffry, I like to take you and introduce you to Charity. She’s that woman with the red hair.” And Lewis pointed to Charity. He further added, “She manages an art gallery and shows many of the new and upcoming artists in the area. That’s where Christopher and I met her.”
Jeffry looked at her for a moment and then said to Lewis, “You know, Lew, I’ve never had much luck with red heads.” And he laughed and Lewis had to laugh too. He himself had a little trouble with a little red headed boy when he was thirteen.
Charity wandered over to the refreshments table to get another Long Island Ice Tea. It really was great of Christopher and Lewis to have hired a bartender. And the catered food was delicious, although she didn’t dare eat too much of the fatty and salty fare. She must keep her figure in mind at all times. And the mirror behind the “bar” showed her that it was looking most fine tonight. It helps to starve yourself all day if you want a perfectly flat tummy to put into that little black dress in the evening.
While the bartender, an older man with graying hair and a very out of date (from Charity’s perspective) soul patch, was mixing her drink, he attempted to converse with her, “Well, Ma’am, how are you enjoying the party?”
Ma’am? Ma’am? Charity thought to herself. Where does he get off calling me Ma’am? He’s old enough to be my father. She glanced once at him and then turned her back to him saying, “Could you just hurry up with that drink, please?”
Fresh drink in hand, she stood and surveyed the party like a queen surveying her court. Her head was titled slightly up. She had the smallest squint to her eyes. There were no frown lines of course, thanks to Botox. And she had composed her body into her best fashion model stance.
There were little knots of conversation. One group on the patio was laughing loudly at some joke. People in general were smiling and seemed to be having a good time. Especially that one woman with all the men standing around her. Charity couldn’t see what the attraction was. Her clothes looked like they came from Goodwill. She hadn’t a clue about how to accessorize properly and her hair was pulled back into a pony tail. A pony tail of all things. And she could stand to lose a pound or two.
With a totally unbecoming frown on her face (as much as the Botox would allow), Charity wandered down the hall and into the guest bedroom where all the outerwear had been piled atop the bed. Setting her drink down on the dresser, she sorted through the pile, found her coat and put it on. Letting herself out the front door, she got into her sporty little red car and drove home to the company of her cat who always absolutely adored her. Unfortunately for Charity, no one (not even Christopher and Lewis) noticed that she had left the party.
I was tasked with developing a character using three tools (there are actually about nine tools for developing a character) in a minimum of three paragraphs but no more than 20. I chose to ignore any dialogue in the paragraph count. I’m just that way.
When writing a novel, you can often take your time developing your characters. They grow along with the novel. You discover things about them as you write about them. In a short story, it is more critical that you set the stage early on and quickly. As an exercise, I think this is a good one that everyone should try from time to time in order to sharpen your skills and become more concise.
In short, the nine basic tools are:
- Treat your characters as individuals. I’m not sure why they have to spell this out. I should think it was obvious.
- Vary the vocabulary. People use words differently so your characters should as well.
- Point of view. I tend to use the omnipotent narrator point of view a lot. Writing in the first person can be difficult to sustain over a long novel. Some authors use a mix of points of view. That works too.
- Clothing. You can use styles of dress to define a character. Picture the quintessential professorial garb as I did. Or a slutty sort of hooker get up. Tells you a lot about a character in just a few words.
- Naming. Common names feel familiar and approachable. Less common names feel more distant.
- Props. We all surround ourselves with certain things we like to have to hand for one reason or another. Your characters should do that as well. A prop can say a lot about a character. Does the side table next to a chair have a coaster on it? Or does it have a hand crocheted doily on it? What’s that say?
- Companions. In life, a lot can be learned about a person by the company they keep. It’s the same in literature.
- Back story. I think this is often the most fun part of developing a character. There are things in our lives that shape how we perceive the world and how we move through it. Figuring out what those things are about your characters is often the most fulfilling part of writing … at least for me.
- Personality traits. This is another fun one for me. Is your character patient, kind, mean-spirited, loving, misogynistic? It really helps to develop a character when you know how they are likely to react to certain stimuli.
So, can you figure out which three I mainly used in the development of Charity?