Melanie Spiller & Coloratura Consulting
A Tonic for Ramshackle Wordsmiths
Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
Building Character, Part 3
Portia was dumfounded. She had walked onto the airplane fully prepared to have a dull and uneventful flight, struggled with the overhead
binís contents and passing passengers, and then looked at her seatmate. There he was, smiling up at her as if nothing had happened.
In todayís exciting episode of Building Character (Part 3), youíll 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. Iíll just make a list of what I think you should be able to discern while youíre busy doing your research.
- There are
at least two characters: Portia and a man. She might know him, or maybe she doesnít 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.
has brought luggage, which means that she did not depart with extreme haste. And it means that sheís 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 donít know how.
- Portiaís parents were literate, which we know because
of her name.
- Something happened between Portia and the man; he smiles ďas if nothing had happened,Ē so we know she wasnít necessarily
pleased by what ever that was. We know that she has reacted poorly because of the first sentence.
- Portia did not expect to seeóor
meetóthis 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.
are lots of things that you donít know about the characters from that first paragraph. Go ahead and make yourself a list of those
things, too. Iíll work on mine while you do that.
- We donít know whether the trip is business or pleasure for either character.
donít know where theyíre headed or whether they will end up in the same destination (one could transfer).
- We donít know whether they
knew each other before this flight.
- We donít know whether he knew she would be on the plane or not, or whether he influenced the seat
- We donít 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 donít know whether she is running away from something or someone. We donít know whether a dull
and uneventful flight might provide a pleasant contrast to her ďregularĒ life. We donít really know that she was hoping for an uneventful
flight, for that matter. The reverse is also true: we donít know whether this trip was supposed to kick-start her life.
- We donít know
whether the luggage she puts into the overhead bin is an overnight bag, or whether she has checked additional luggage. We also donít
know whether itís important to the story or not.
I donít 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 donít know about it) than character.
It isnít necessary to separate character development from plot, really. Your characters got into the plot because of who they are,
right? Letís 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.
Itís a murder mystery.
Itís an adventure story.
Itís a shameless romance.
Itís a political
intrigue set in an exotic country.
Itís a historical novel.
Itís the biography of an opera star.
Itís a childrenís story.
Itís a spy novel.
Itís science fiction.
Did anything change about the characters? If itís a murder mystery, is either one the murderer
or the famous detective? If itís a shameless romance, didnít the characters suddenly become gorgeous and have a current of electricity
flowing between them? If itís 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 itís an allegory, for what? If itís science fiction, does setting the story in the present have any effect
on what can happen?
I hope you had fun with this little exercise. Next time, Iíll talk about plot versus character.