Monday, July 30, 2007


Posted by Lisa

To be honest, I was astounded. I have been exposed to money, and people with money - I rode horses as a child, the sport of kings and queens. But someone, I recently met, floored me.

His name - he never told me actually. I didn't ask. I met him in a playground, a casual conversation because we both have kids and we were both standing around. He was well-groomed, certainly. Neater than my husband would be at ten AM on a Saturday morning. He did pull away when my dalmation lab mix tried to say hello. Okay, maybe he was bitten as a child. Cut him some slack, I said to myself.

It was when his five- year-old daughter came up to him screaming, "My crocs are dirty. My crocs are dirty," that my jaw dropped to the ground. Why? Because he said, "Ew, they are. Just throw them in the trash. Mom can get you a new pair."

What struck me was his perspective. Is he THAT wealthy, THAT wasteful?

Later that day, I met Manuel, a maintainance man at the Marriott Hotel where I was staying. He came to my room to fix the air conditioner. We got to talking as he needed to wait ten minutes to see if it got cool. Money, wealth, or lack thereof, was the subject of our conversation. Manuel is solid, short, with eyes a warm brown that probably sparkle when he's happy. He has two teenagers. His wife cleans houses. "When I first arrived from Mexico, I made $5.25 an hour," he told me. "I hope to make $22,000 next year."

I probably gulped, my perspective is somewhere in the middle of these two characters, and characters, they are.

Since, I have certainly thought of these two people as characters. Goes with the territory of being a writer, I suppose. One character I liked a whole lot more than the other. I could spend a few hundred pages with that one. The other, well, I'd lose my patience by the third chapter - maybe the second, actually.

So much of writing is trying to write what intrigues you. Write, in fact, what fascinates you to no end. Then it will be fresh, alive, lively, and delicious to read. This, I have always thought of in terms of genre. You like romance? Then write the best darn romance you can write. I've thought of it in terms of plot, as well. I never thought of this in terms of character. Interestingly, as the masterminds of the writing process, we are in CHARGE of characters.

This whole character revelation I had, made me rethink my characters. Do I love them - even the cheeky, mean, impatient ones? If I don't love them, who will? So, if a character is dull, afraid to try something, make them the most outspoken, ill-tempered, agoraphobic dull person you ever wanted to meet. THAT will make unforgettable characters - who your readers (or agents and editors) will adore.


Anonymous said...

Just a comment: what if our story does need a character who is dull?
Life is not full of lively people.

Or perhaps I misunderstand you.

Btw, I hate people who waste stuff. Wealth i can understand.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...


Thanks for your thoughtful post. You really opened my eyes to what I need to do with my dear Celia. I'll start upping the likability factor pronto.


Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Such a thoughtful post, Lisa. I think the trick (at least as I see it) is to make your characters--dull, touching, kind, mean--ring true. If they seem human rather than just as charicatures, then we can care about them because none of us is always good or alwasy interesting. Like the rich guy tossing out the crocs--he's got an interesting back story, I'm guessing. Even your dull guy, Reality, has one. So, if we're interested in a character, we're way more likely to care about them (maybe the better term is be intrigued by them) even if we don't like them.

Larramie said...

It's true, Lisa, that your first character was wasteful but what made him wasteful? No, it's not just about the money, it's about him -- a not-so-nice, yet intriuging character.

Lisa said...

I love character quirks and I love characters who appear one way on the surface, but have many other layers underneath. I had a client once who was a scientist. Not very personable and very impatient. We were working with him on a highly technical project and I actually had to remove one young engineer from the account because the client just didn't like how he operated and thought his methods were slipshod. My engineers and consultants hated to work with him and thought he was a horrible person. As the account exec, I got to know him as a person. I needed to find out what made him tick so we could work with him. I found out that he had a son at home with a debilitating disease that he'd had all his life and that he was 19 and not expected to see his 21st birthday. This explained "Jack" to me completely. He spoke so tenderly of his son and I realized that wasting time was the greatest possible sin to him. Jack was brilliant, got to the root of technical problems through the most methodical, efficient way possible and his priority was to put in the best day of work that he could so that he could spend his free time with his son. When I shared what I learned about Jack with my team, their feelings toward him changed completely. Even the very unlikeable guy at the park (very) could potentially have a backstory that might make him more sympathetic. Maybe he's got a cleanliness-related form of OCD and his life is a living hell because of it. Or not. If he's a minor character, he can be unlikable and I think that's OK. People who are boring on the surface rarely are boring when you get to know them. I think any character can be given traits that make them interesting and maybe even sympathetic, if they're not truly despicable.