Saturday, November 3, 2012


Wilkins Micawber
from David Copperfield

The beauty of good books lies inside of the people living in them.  Characters can make a dull story exciting and a good story even better.  

Here are some of the most memorable characters of books that I’ve read:

  • ·         Macon Leary (The Accidental Tourist,  Anne Tyler) – a frightened, anal-retentive man who is content in his sheltered world until his son is killed in a random shooting.  After this happens, Macon’s marriage falls apart and his back goes out, forcing him to move back in with his brothers and sister in the house he grew up in.  As much as Macon tries to make his life manageable, it continues to spiral out of control...which (of course) is the hope for Macon.  Brilliantly written, Anne Tyler made Macon a loveable protagonist I was unexpectedly cheering for.

  • ·         Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen) – romantic, young and beautiful Marianne explodes off the pages of S&S, throwing caution into the wind and losing her heart completely for John Willoughby, the dashing neighbor intent on sweeping her off her feet.  While her family carefully maneuvered around her, I knew that Marianne was headed for disaster and I could do nothing to stop her.  She reminded me of myself and then other Mariannes I have later known.  I became personally attached to her in the story.

  • ·         Wilkins Micawber(David Copperfield, Charles Dickens) – the most conflicted man I have ever met in any page of any book!  Mr. Micawber was reckless and foolish with his spending habits, causing his family great shame and eventually going into debtor’s prison.  Still, his heart was the most solid of gold and he became a friend to the orphaned David (the book’s real hero) and was a loving husband and father.  His optimistic outlook on his life (“Something will turn up!”) and his coaching of David not to go over his budget made him likeable and tragic at the same time.  I loved him completely.

  • ·         Jing-Mei Woo (Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan) – After losing her mother unexpectedly, June (Jing-Mei) realizes that her Aunties want her to take her mother’s place in their club (the book’s namesake) which meets to play Mah-jong and invest in stocks.  After realizing that the Aunties have arranged for her to “finish her mother’s unfinished business” June is plunged into a journey of self-discovery and forced reflection that she wasn’t bargaining for.  Graceful but insecure; brave yet shy – June reminded me of every woman I ever met and left me in tears at the end of her journey.  I have read the book about 10 times... and each time I think she is the most unlikely and graceful of heroes.

  • ·         Ivan Ilyich (The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy) – A man who, at the end of his life is faced with an illness and has nothing to do but lay in bed and reflect.  Sound boring?  Ivan was relentless in the detail of the triumphs, disappointments and passions in his life and spent the last three days screaming in bed.  I have never, ever put down a book with such transfixed horror and sadness.  It still haunts me to this day, the way he wondered what would follow this awful death....

  • ·         Yasin Abd al-Jawad (Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz) – A man with a large appetite and passion, Yasin strolled through the story meant to belong to his father with such clueless confidence that it unnerved me.  To this day he epitomizes the attitudes of men in old Egypt – misogynistic and unable to weigh the consequences for his actions.  Yasin bled off the pages and made me hate him, hope he wasn’t caught in his folly and later wish he could find a woman who could understand him.  Mahfouz’s brilliance in writing him reminded me of every prodigal that never seems to understand how his own behavior affects his family. 

Now – those are charecters who are fictional.  They never lived, and yet they are people I’ve met and I remember.

I am no expert in developing characters.  What I do know is that I go through a little inventory before I begin writing.  Maybe writing good characters mean that you need to know them well before they appear on paper.  

Here’s some questions I’ve been told to ask myself before developing a character:

  • ·         Does this person exist already in your mind? 
  • ·         What year were they born?  What are some of the things happening in the world that would influence them?
  • ·         What drives them? (if they are driven)  What inspires them? 
  • ·         What do they do?  Do they do this out of choice or because they have to?
  • ·         What does their world look like?  Who do they eat lunch with?
  • ·         What is their definition of good and evil?  What do they base their beliefs on?
  • ·         What are their flaws?  Their little annoying habits?
  • ·         What are their strengths?  Their courageous little habits that makes them loveable?
  • ·         When they wake up in the morning, what makes them want to get up?

Once details about the character start forming in your mind,  begin writing about them.  Eventually you will know them and “remember” a defining event in their life that has influenced/changed them.

 Exercise:  HAVE FUN!! 
  • ·         Begin by finding a picture of a person in a magazine, on an advertisement – the web ANYWHERE. 
  • ·         Give that person a name.
  • ·         Ask yourself what this person is going through right now. 
  • ·         What do you know about this person that no one else does? 
  • ·         Is there a story here?

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