Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Little Things

I've come to realize that in writing, it's often the little things that bring a character to life more than anything else.  It's the little things that make our characters interesting, enjoyable, and sometimes frustrating.  Just like with us, they often tell people more about who we are than anything else.

Like when your crayon-wielding son gives you the illegible, hand-drawn Father's Day card--the one with the picture where you look more like a giraffe than a human and you search the entire house looking for a magnet that will hold it to the refrigerator.  Or when your daughter gives you the broken limb from a dogwood tree that you're expected to plant and keep alive until she's married because it has pretty flowers on it.

Those are wonderful snapshot moments in time.  But what if those moments occurred years ago?  Do they reveal only who we were as opposed to who we are?  Do they give our characters history?

Consider: In a few years that young father will age and become like me.  Upper-middle-aged.  A laundry list of new character-revealing traits emerge.  Like when said upper-middle-aged man ponders how it's even possible that a single eyebrow hair can grow to a full inch in length.  Overnight.  And how he must be careful when trimming that lone rogue with battery-powered hair trimmers using the one upper-middle-aged eye that can see around hands and clippers.

The aging father remembers how he prayed for hair to cover his smooth chest because all the other young fathers had hair and he had none.  And waking one morning to find that hair had indeed grown, but on top of his shoulders, down his back, out of his ears, and his chest was still bare.  How he made the mental note to be more specific in subsequent prayers and wondered if Gabriel and Michael peered down from Heaven pointing and giggling at God's latest prank.

I wrote in a previous post about how it's easy to capture the mundane, but where one detail can bore the reader with unnecessary information another detail can bring a character to life and do as much--if not more--than the primary plot can ever accomplish.

Maybe it's more important to see what Mom does while making breakfast than it is to know what she's serving.  Perhaps it's not little Johnny's refusal to eat his cabbage that fascinates us, but rather seeing the face he makes when Mom sets it on the table.  Suzie's math test may have received a bad grade, but watching her evade Dad when she brings it home tells us more about Suzie than the simple fact that she finds mathematics challenging.

Life is filled with these little moments of thought and behavior that when properly revealed to readers enables them to identify with our characters.  To love them or hate them or feel for them like we want.


What are the little things about your characters that will tell me who they truly are?

16 comments:

  1. What a great post. I'm still in first draft stage, so now I have something to keep in mind going forward. Thanks!

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    1. You're quite welcome, Daisy! Glad you found it helpful.

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  2. I like this very much. I love "People Watching" and wondering what makes people "Tick"...always an odd saying I think, but it is so true.

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    1. I've always been fascinated by people who are fascinated by other people. :) Since I started writing seriously, I too have had to become a "people watcher" and now notice the oddest things.

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  3. Hm. Interesting. I do believe it's the little things that make our characters who they are. Let's take Peeta from The Hunger Games movie right now, because it's the one thing that popped into my head: there is a point in the movie where he touches Katniss' braid, and it's so tender and heart-breaking that it makes you like his character even more.

    If I think of a better example, I'll comment again about it.

    Yes. The little things are sometimes the biggest...

    ...that doesn't make any sense.

    Well, I'm gonna go before I annoy anyone if I haven't already.

    -Jackson

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    1. Thanks, dude. BTW, the gnome video is FUNNY!

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  4. Great Post! I agree that the little things and details are what makes writing rich and feel real. I think it is a real challenge to embed these treasures into the story while keeping the plot moving forward. I definitely struggle with this.

    Thanks for sharing.

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    1. It is definitely a challenge, especially distinguishing between details that enrich and details that bore. I suppose the science (or would that be art?) is not exact, but experience is a good teacher.

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  5. Good luck with your first novel, Jeff! Time is my enemy, but for you, I can't even imagine time with 3 grand-kids! Again, good luck!

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    1. Thanks, Jack! I'm having a blast (as are my characters hehehe) now that I'm down to the last little bit. The grandkids are great. The oldest is the inspiration behind a novel I'm starting to plot--a pseudo-prequel to the series. (I guess he'll demand royalties when he's older. LOL)

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  6. Good evening, I'm here for the first time I read something interesting. I think in a blog where everything is transmitted through the written word, the only thing I can say who we really are and what they really are our characters is the syntax. The timing, of adjectives, the script pauses or accelerations. In real life there are many other things that fill our minds with useful information ... a small gesture, a look, tone of voice, the manner of sitting or walking. Here, you have to tell it all and is the daily work of the writer with an advantage, though: if you can write then the little thing becomes eternal.

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    1. A big welcome to you! (Along with a big thanks for dropping by!)

      The eternal is what we're really after, I suppose. Nice way of putting that. When the written word can capture those tones and gestures, etc. then the payoff is priceless. It's tough to get it right, but it feels mighty good when we do!

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  7. Good post! Not too long after the kerfaffle about people on twitter complaining about the casting of Rue and Cinna (on racial lines) I saw a boy in a store that looked JUST like how I pictured one of my MCs. When I pointed him out to my husband, my husband said "Really? That's not how I pictured him at all. For once, I thought he had black hair and was short" (the character is very thoroughly described as tall and blonde). This got me thinking and talking with people and I've reached the conclusion that readers don't pay much attention to the physical description of characters - they create their own mental picture, which is based on those "telling" details you are talking about. Those details ARE the story in many cases - they provide context and nuance and a mental picture of the characters. So that's a long-winded way of saying YES YES YES, SOOOO important! Thank you!

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    1. Thanks! This is something that I've come to discover over time. I find that it can be difficult at times to determine which detail is the mundane action the readers ignore and which is the character-revealing detail that fires the reader's imagination. I suppose it's not always a hard and fast distinction since readers are as varied as anything else in life. We're all unique and distinct. We learn by doing. So I'm "doing" as much as possible. :)

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