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Mix-and-Match Characters

Cheryl's Musings: Mix-and-Match Characters

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


Mix-and-Match Characters

I played with a cool “puzzle” as a kid: three blocks stacked on top of one another, with a rod threaded through them so they can rotate independently. The result is a 3-cube stack with a different picture on each of the four sides. The top third of each image shows a head, the middle third a body, and the bottom pictures the legs and feet.

Line up the images, and you have four simple characters: for ex., a cartoon tiger, alligator, hippo, and monkey. You can also twist the blocks to connect the monkey body to the hippo head and alligator legs, or connect the alligator body to a tiger’s tail and a monkey’s head. (Now, of course, this puzzle is available as a smart phone app….)

Sometimes I think character creation works the same way: you borrow the geeky appearance of one person, add in the always-in-motion high energy of another, mix in a quirky turn of speech you overheard in the elevator and the girl-next-door’s fluorescent pink high tops…and pretty soon you’ve pieced together your protagonist.

Okay, maybe it’s not so simple, but the principle is valid: assuming that each character you create is a collage of people you’ve met, observed, heard about, or read about—with liberal application of exaggeration and creative interpretation—you can improve your character-creating ability by increasing the number of “puzzle pieces” you can choose from.

This is why people-watching is such a great skill to develop—the real world offers an endless supply of character inspiration that can be much stranger than fiction. Here are some categories of character details you can collect for your inspiration file:

  • Appearance. Go beyond standard eye color, hair color, height and weight to more memorable details—look for unusual features and play with unusual comparisons to create the image you want. “Skin the color of ditch water”, for instance, is a heck of a lot more interesting than “brown”.
  • Carriage. I like to study the kids in our local orchestras to see how they sit, stand, and move. One teen boy has dark hair that falls past his nose; during a concert, he looks half-wild as his hair whips around his face. Some kids slump; some sit at the edges of their seats; some slouch as if embarrassed about their heights. Pay attention both to how people carry themselves and what that reveals about their characters.
  • What they carry. This can say tons about a person—and spark a story or three along the way. I’m still wondering about the guy I saw riding a motorcycle with an upright vacuum cleaner strapped to his back….
  • How they speak. Do your characters tend to all sound the same? This is a great way to collect interesting expressions and ways of speaking.
  • Personality. Pay attention to the nuances—people aren’t stereotypes, and the most interesting details are often the most surprising. Search out the contradictions.

I’ll write more about people-watching on Wednesday. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you: Where do you get inspiration for your characters?

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At May 16, 2011 at 4:12 AM , Blogger Andrea Mack said...

Yeah, I do think my characters are made up of bits from different people. But they are probably people I know fairly well, rather than people I just watch at the park.

At May 16, 2011 at 4:14 PM , Blogger MC said...

Those puzzles are pretty nifty. I get the pieces for my characters from all over the place. Sometimes I use a symbol, like maybe a tree. A character based off of a tree could be strong willed, tough skinned, brown hair, green eyes, and maybe tends to sway when they stand. I enjoyed this post :)

At May 17, 2011 at 9:01 PM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Andrea: I agree, I get more character details from the people I know well, because I really understand how they think and act. They appreciate it when they aren't *too* obvious in my books, though!

M.C. Ooooh, I love that idea! How cool! Thanks for sharing :)

At May 18, 2011 at 11:44 AM , Blogger Beth MacKinney said...

I love the richness of layered characters. Thanks for sharing this post!

At May 18, 2011 at 12:24 PM , Blogger Brandon Duncan said...

You know, I never thought about the alternative postures, etc... definitely something to think about.

Also, to tag along with these ideas, maybe put together a character 'guidebook' for yourself. (Even if you cannot draw) at least list the character's traits, a small bio, things like that. You can always go back and reference from these basics if you find yourself stuck trying to figure out how your character would react to a situation.

Neat post!

At May 19, 2011 at 9:45 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a fun way to play with characters! As writers, it is our job to make sure our characters are interesting. An author with cliche characters may not get very far unless they mix it up really well elsewhere. Great post!

At May 20, 2011 at 12:32 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Beth, thank you! I'm so glad you stopped by :)

Brandon: I like the "character guidebook" idea. I try to do something like this--I have a word document with details about all my characters--but it tends to get outdate as I write and I'm not very good at keeping it current:P.'ve given me a great post idea. I need to blog about what such a guide might contain....

Rebecca: You're absolutely right, and it's waaaay too easy to slip into flat, stereotypical characters that surprise no one.


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