Character Development isn’t just for Fiction Writers

 

Novice storytellers spend more time focusing on story-structure than developing their characters for two reasons. First, they think that character-development is only for fiction writers. Second, it’s infinitely easier to partition a sequence of events into beginning, middle, and end than it is to uncover the motivations of people who participate in those events.

People are the wildcards of any story because two seemingly contradictory things can be true at the same time. One person can react in such a way that’s totally consistent with their personality, while a third-party observer can see those reactions as odd. For example, if a child is presented with a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies, more likely than not, he or she will swipe a cookie or three. However, if the child does something unexpected, like cry, toss the plate on the floor, or pour barbecue sauce on them, the storyteller has now put a question in the listener’s mind. “Why did the child do that?”

Character development starts with studying everyday people. How do they react when they’re happy, sad, or under pressure? What are their belief systems? What gets them out of bed in the morning? The more you study, the more opportunity you have to find something unique enough to build a story around it.

Today, I wanted to share a little character development exercise. Don’t worry, I’m not asking you to create the next Han Solo or Wonder Woman. Instead, I want you to think of the most influential people in your life. Perhaps it’s a family member, a sports legend, an author, or a leader.

Start by creating a table with three columns. Put the name of someone that you admire in the first column, followed by the role they played in your life in the second, and a lesson that you learned from them in the final column.

I’ve created the following one as an example.

  Name Role Lesson
1 Art Father Healthy skepticism produces a healthy outlook
2 Ralph Grandfather The best way to understand human nature is to study the actions of others
3 Flora Grandmother You only feel as old as the people you hang around with
4 Stan Grandfather Chess is life
5 Fred Uncle Creativity is seeing something in an object that others can’t
6 Richard Feynman Physicist If you can’t explain it to someone with a high school education, you don’t understand it yourself
7 Arthur Billionaire friend Good management is better than good luck
8 Mr. Reich Neighbor There are always two sides to every story
9 Mother Antonia Nun Don’t own too many things because they eventually own you
10 Wally Shirrah Astronaut Pushing the envelope is relative

Finally, think about that next story, presentation, or talk that you need to make. What do you need to accomplish with it? Go one-by-one through your table and see if there is something that you can use from the ten characters that you just listed.

 

Photo Credit: Characters in the new piece now poforming [sic] at the Theatre Royal Cotten Garden. England, 1820. London: Pub by John Marshall Junr. 24 Little St. Martins Lane, Nov. 6. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2005676991/.

The Story You Start is Rarely the Story You Tell

 

This morning I started writing a piece about President Lincoln’s use of language in the Gettysburg address. Instead, as happens frequently, I ended up writing something totally different.

You see, my muse is fickle. She arrives when she wants, and while I can’t predict her arrivals, I’ve learned that I can attract her through a simple act: writing…ANYTHING. She loves the rhythmic sound of fingertips striking a keyboard and if she’s in the mood, we start dancing.

But that’s when all bets are off. Any thoughts of continuing down the original story path are futile, as my suddenly invigorated fingertips struggle to keep up with a barrage of wild new ideas. Some are good and others aren’t, but it doesn’t matter. The thought-train is barreling downhill and my job is get out of its way.

That’s what happened when I started writing about the Gettysburg Address. As I studied an old photograph from the actual event, I wondered what the people in it were thinking. That’s when she arrived and steered me away from a linquistic story to a more historical one. The resulting rough draft wasn’t quite StoryHowish, yet, it still lead me to think more deeply about my own process.

Writing, as in storytelling, is not a linear process. No matter how hard you try to maintain a strait line from point A to point B, the muse forces course-corrections to F, then through W, and finally concluding at Z. Resisting such deviations leads only to frustration. Therefore, the measure of any skilled storyteller is the ability to put one’s ego aside to find the right story.

Have you set out to tell a story but find yourself blocked? Woo the muse with the call of the keyboard. Perhaps she’ll help you find a better path.

Now, let’s see if I can finish that piece on the Gettysburg address.

 

Photo Credit: Williams, Sophus, photographer. Woman Looking at Book as Another Woman Points to Something in the Book. , None. [Berlin: loescher & petsch ; verl. e. linde & comp. sophus williams between 1867 and 1873] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/96519653/.

Storytellers Address Symptoms and Causes

 

I’ve always liked writing, but I can’t say the same thing about reading. My reading experience differs from most of my writing friends, who describe the joys of discovering their local libraries, where they spent hours both finding and devouring books.

I just couldn’t do it. Reading was a physically painful process. After about a half-hour, my eyes would hurt, and I needed to stop. It wasn’t until I graduated from college that my optometrist diagnosed the problem.

“You’re nearsighted,” Dr. Baker, said. “So, I’m prescribing you reading glasses.”

I looked at him quizzically. “But, Doc, everything up close is clear. It’s the things in the distance that are fuzzy. Why do I need reading glasses?”

“To remove eye strain,” he said, before explaining how eye muscles contract to focus close and relax to focus far. “You’re an engineer. Your entire world is only a few feet away. Because of that, your eye muscles never get a chance to relax and thus they remain in a perpetual state of near focus.”

So, rather than giving me corrective glasses to compensate for my nearsightedness, Dr. Baker prescribed reading glasses to trick my eyes into thinking that they were focused out far, thus forcing my eye muscles to relax, and helping my distant-vision to return.

Those reading glasses changed my life because I can now read for hours and my eyes never get tired.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. When trying to solve a problem, it’s frequently best to treat the cause as opposed to symptoms.

It’s also a hint for storytellers who are trying to find an angle. If a story is the result of people pursuing what they want, and what they want is to solve a problem, there are at least two different ways to go: compensate for the symptom or eliminate its cause. Each one will lead to its own story.

So, what problem are you trying to solve today? Have you considered both approaches to solving it?

 

Photo Credit: Bain News Service, Publisher. Assembling Main Engine. , ca. 1915. [Between and Ca. 1920] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2014706627/.