Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
Building Character, Part 3
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
Portia was dumfounded. She had walked onto the airplane fully prepared to have a dull and uneventful flight, struggled with the overhead bin’s contents and passing passengers, and then looked at her seatmate. There he was, smiling up at her as if nothing had happened. (44 words)In today’s exciting episode of Building Character (Part 3), you’ll learn how to make assumptions about characters from their actions and the reactions of other characters. Look at that opening paragraph. What do you know from it? Go ahead and think about it. I’ll just make a list of what I think you should be able to discern while you’re busy doing your research.There are at least two characters: Portia and a man. She might know him, or maybe she doesn’t know him and he is smiling for some other reason that will soon become apparent.They are going somewhere by airplane, from which we know that neither is horribly impoverished.Portia has brought luggage, which means that she did not depart with extreme haste. And it means that she’s either staying overnight or has brought supplies for her adventure.Portia is not in a wheelchair.Portia was not expecting anything to happen on the flight until she sees her seatmate. At that point, something changed, but we don’t know how.Portia’s parents were literate (which we know because of her name).Something happened between Portia and the man; he smiles “as if nothing had happened,” so we know she wasn’t necessarily pleased by what ever that was. We know that she has reacted poorly because of the first sentence.Portia did not expect to see—or meet—this man on the airplane.It is a commercial airline, or she would have known who the other passengers were already. The story is told in the last half of the 20th century or later because they are on a commercial airline. He got on the plane before she did.There are lots of things that you don’t know about the characters from that first paragraph. Go ahead and make yourself a list of those things, too. I’ll work on mine while you do that.We don’t know whether the trip is business or pleasure for either character.We don’t know where they’re headed or whether they will end up in the same destination (one could transfer).We don’t know whether they knew each other before this flight. We don’t know whether he knew she would be on the plane or not, or whether he influenced the seat assignments. We don’t know their ages, races, or anything about their appearance, except that Portia is tall enough to put something in the overhead bin without help. We don’t know whether she is running away from something or someone. We don’t know whether a dull and uneventful flight might provide a pleasant contrast to her “regular” life. We don’t really know that she was hoping for an uneventful flight, for that matter. The reverse is also true: we don’t know whether this trip was supposed to kick-start her life.We don’t know whether the luggage she puts into the overhead bin is an overnight bag, or whether she has checked additional luggage. We also don’t know whether it’s important to the story or not.I don’t know about you, but I found that the longer one list became, the more I could add to the other. You might have found tidbits that I missed, too. You may have also noticed that a fair amount of what we know has more to do with the plot (and what we don’t know about it) than character. It isn’t necessary to separate character development from plot, really. Your characters got into the plot because of who they are, right? Let’s see whether determining the plot has an effect on what we know about the characters. Think about that airplane opening in these scenarios and see what happens.It’s a murder mystery. It’s an adventure story.It’s a shameless romance.It’s a political intrigue set in an exotic country.It’s a historical novel.It’s the biography of an opera star.It’s a children’s story.It’s a spy novel.It’s an allegory.It’s science fiction.Did anything change about the characters? If it’s a murder mystery, is either one the murderer or the famous detective? If it’s a shameless romance, didn’t the characters suddenly become gorgeous and have a current of electricity flowing between them? If it’s a biography of an opera star, is this the man who made her famous or the man who starred opposite her in a terrible flop? If it’s an allegory, for what? If it’s science fiction, does setting the story in the present have any effect of what can happen? I hope you had fun with this little exercise. Next time, I’ll talk about plot versus character.