by Kate Maruyama
As fiction writers, we create our characters from nothing. They come onto the page a little wobbly, sometimes with a fierce voice, but always lacking in layers. Sometime they stumble around shallowly for a while and we ask them questions, “Who are you? Why do you do what you do?” Sometimes we give them monster backstories to rev them up. Sometimes they tell us interesting things about themselves as we put them through their paces.
Whatever our process, we can always use new details.
I like to people watch. I’ve been doing it my whole life. Sitting anywhere and watching strangers and their funny, very human little habits. I try to do a “sketch” of them with words, details,
Worries edge of shirt. Bites nails. Chronic hair tosser. An accustomed slouch: trying to be small? Or tall person in a short family? Nervous throat noise. Obnoxious laugh. Spanking new shoes, everything else old and threadbare. Who picked out that shirt? Keeps checking for wallet.
These are all useful tools and when I’m stuck for a character detail, or even a new character, I dive into my little gray notebook and find something there. I’ll take traits from one or two characters, put them together and see who I get.
But whose character traits do we know better than anyone? Our family and lifelong friends.
I’m not suggesting that we go about writing our friends stories, nor stealing conversations or gossip from them because we can’t think up our own stories. We can think up our own stories, we’re writers. But many of us, perhaps because of one or two of these examples, tend to shy away from writing about our friends and family to the point of ignoring the wealth of human information that’s at our fingertips. The way in which we observe those closest to us may be one of our most valuable assets as writers.
The nice thing about the people near to us is that they are always, sometimes annoyingly, present in our lives. We can loot anyone around us for character traits, idiosyncrasies, quirks, sounds, smells and looks. The best thing about friends and family is that they’re a lifetime study.
It’s one thing to know the guy at the office who has a nervous twitch about rubber bands, always balling them up, or the lady at the cash register at the grocery with tragically applied eyeshadow. But take these types of idiosyncrasies from people we know best and it gets more interesting. There are more layers. Because you know the why.
Here are 4 tips for using the wealth of human information in those closest you to help your characters. AND a way to get through an endless Thanksgiving feast you’d rather not be at. Or to use those quiet moments in a Thanksgiving you’re very happy to be at while waiting for the turkey.
- If someone is irritating you, jot down why. Later, if you’re bored, or stuck at a meal with that person, come up with a few similes for that particular character trait. Even a bad simile might spark something for later. “Her voice was high and shrill, like a car alarm that wouldn’t cease.” “She smelled like artificial cherry air freshener. Like the very fabric of her flesh was synthetic.” “He kept pushing his point like a bulldozer, smushing it against a wall until it started to lose its shape.” Don’t worry about their artfulness, just make sure you are catching the person as closely as you can. It’s not the actual simile that you’ll use in your fiction, it’s merely making hard to grasp character traits tangible for reworking them.
- Stand back a little and observe how these characters in your life interact with people, especially yourself. If you find yourself having a gut reaction, arguing with someone or trying to change the subject, pay attention to it. Ask yourself why your sibling just reduced you to saying “fuck you.” What would you like to say if you had your druthers? Write down a speech for that person that you’ll never give them, it may also be therapeutic. “You may think your sweeping generalizations make you seem smarter, but actually they just point out how small-minded you are.” Or, “What I mean by ‘fuck you’ is that you make me feel five and helpless again.” Study the dynamics of these reactions, because if you can capture a small portion of them in fiction, they are gold.
- If you do know of the hopeless person in someone’s life or your own, take notes. These people, self-destructive, narcissistic, self-aggrandizing or, simply knuckleheaded. They make us roll our eyes and not want to think about them. But these people are fascinating. Try to think about what makes them tick. And define their issues as closely as you can. Again, even terrible similes will help you along in characters. “Her fascination with herself was so oppressive that it filled the room with mirrors in which no one else could be reflected.” “She said she needed him, but he just didn’t get it. He was only thinking about the fact that he needed a shower. He was a square peg and she wouldn’t stop swinging the hammer.” Through defining this person, the people around them can come to life. All of these characters cause an effect and those that cause a negative reaction in you might be the most useful.
- These details are also useful from people you love. What do you love about them? Capturing how they always know what you’re thinking, or that particular way they make you laugh. Those are gold as well. I have trouble “seeing” my own friends. I sometimes don’t notice if they’ve gotten a haircut because I see them. But this ignorance makes for pretty dull good guys. Try to pay more attention to those you love and the details of your interaction that makes that love possible.
Holiday season is coming up. Pay attention. Take a notebook. I bet that if you just look around the table or the room at a holiday celebration, you’ll start realizing how much you know about these people. Every annoying little detail is a goldmine. Take notes. Use them.
And if you’d like to join a class in this endeavor, take a look at my class, Home For the Holidays: Fueling your Fictional Characters with Family Details. This two week course starts November 15th and spans the Thanksgiving Holiday where you will go off and take your own notes!
Kate Maruyama’s first novel, Harrowgate was published by 47North and her short work has appeared in Arcadia Magazine, The Stoneboat Journal and Controlled Burn as well as on The Manifest-Station, Salon.com, The Rumpus, The Citron Review and Gemini Magazine. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles where she teaches in the MFA and BA programs and is an instructor with Writing Workshops Los Angeles. She lives, writes, teaches and eats in Los Angeles where she lives with her family.