Recently we celebrate my oldest son and my husband’s birthdays. They are a day apart, much to the chagrin of my husband. Thirty-two years ago he brought home the biggest, spiciest burrito he could find in the hopes of jumpstarting labor so that our son would share his birthday. Needless to say, the burrito story was one of many we told at this year’s birthday dinner. We laughed, we clarified details, and we took tangents and remembered those who had been part of our lives but were no longer with us.
As I listened to all this in the company of my husband, my two sons and my ninety-two year old mother, I realized that my family is key to what readers tell me is my strength as a writer: characterization. After generations of evolving as an extended family, I know what makes each member of my family tick. I know why they are special – and why they aren’t. I know how they speak, how they think, how they will act and react, what makes them happy and what doesn’t. I know who they love and admire. That means, if they act out of character, I know to dig deeper to find out why; if they act in character, I completely accept their actions and reactions because I know them so well.
If depth of characterization eludes you, try this exercise.
IMAGINE each of your main characters at a family dinner table.
IDENTIFY where that character fits in e.g. the bartender, the perpetual guest, and the lingerer-in-the-kitchen guy.
ESTABLISH where each character came from and whether or not they are permanent family fixtures or a family member who has distanced themselves.
TAKE their coats. Fur? Wool? Blazer? Sweatshirt? Notice what they’re wearing.
DETERMINE their purpose at the table: the joker, the commentator, the peacemaker, the witch, the politician, the philosophe, the put-upon wife or angry husband (or vice-versa).
LISTEN to the conversation around the table. Do not focus on just one character. Rather, close your eyes, hear all their voices, see all their gestures, listen to their words.
What you ‘hear’, what you ‘see’ at your dinner table will help you create fictional characters that are as familiar as family and as unforgettable.