Fleshing out Characters

I’m currently working on fleshing out characters using different methods. Summary, Repeated action or Habit, Appearance and Speech. Struggling with speech the most. Here are my efforts so far. It’s a character of have an idea for a short story. I hope each of the methods sound like it’s the same character!

Summary Method:

She was never as content as when she was nursing a child. From her two younger brothers when she was not long out of nappies herself, to the most recent addition to her family, her first great grandchild, she had this almost profound ability to soothe and pacify even the most tantrum prone child. Her children were in awe of this ability and called her the baby whisperer. She herself retained a characteristic modesty about it, and presumed her skills were unneeded until she was called upon, like a benevolent goddess. Every night she would make a long entry in a diary that she kept hidden away in a box under her bed. Each entry began “My darling Tom” and always ended with” I love you and miss you so much” and sometimes, on dark days,” I really don’t know how I can go on.” The only other item in the box was an opaque plastic bag of items returned to her from the hospital. It contained a pipe and a half empty tin of tobacco, a pair of glasses and a blue plastic hospital identity bracelet; the name and hospital number smudged and faded, the clasp broken.  Over time the aroma of the tobacco had seeped out of the bag and into the box, infusing it with its scent and she would put her face into the box, breathing in the memory of him. These nocturnal sojourns into memory were kept from her children. She would not burden them with her pain and felt ashamed that she still felt so lost.

 

Habitual or Repeated Action Method:

She rose every day before dawn and would float around the house like a ghost. As the sun began to give some definition to the day, she would begin the task of tethering herself to it. First she would put on her dressing gown tying it purposely at the waist. In the kitchen she would put on the kettle and toss two slices of bread into the toaster.  As the kettle boiled she would hover over the toaster, drumming her fingers on the work surface industriously, waiting for the soft bread to harden and brown under the direct and ferocious heat of the elements. As she sat with a steaming mug of tea looking out at the garden she would feel, with some relief, that with breakfast completed she had officially signed up for the day ahead, and she was never one to renege on her duties. On certain days however, usually those short opaque days of winter when even the sun struggled to get motivated, she would feel herself drifting again and she would fear that, given a brisk enough wind, she would become undone and float away.

 

Appearance Method:

Her brows were slightly raised and drawn together over blue grey eyes, not frowning but rather creating a sort of barricade against an emotion that had risen to ascendancy in the years following her husbands’ death. She wore cheerfulness like an armour and weaponised optimism and positivity, ready to deploy them at a moment’s notice if she feared her nocturnal demons were rising too soon.  Sometimes, without warning, the barricade would wobble and she would widen her eyes, and purse her thin lips into a determined line and by sheer force of will the defences would hold. This was who she presented to the world; the strong resilient widow who kept herself trim and didn’t look her age and who was always there for her family. However as night fell and she found herself alone in a house that was unbearably empty, her edges would begin to blur and soften and she would deflate into her armchair, thin long fingered hands hanging motionless over its arms, her wedding ring slipping slowly down to her knuckle.

 

Speech Method:.

“Mum! Where have you been? We’ve been worried sick”

She brushed past them to the front door, handbag open and pressed under her arm, handle trailing on the ground, with her other hand she tried to open the door

“Oh, sorry love, I’ve just been to my group”

“Your group?”  Sarah, her youngest, was puzzled “What group?”

She gave up struggling with the door and turned to face Sarah

“You know. My computer group? Surfers of the Third Age? They’re helping me with that laptop you bought me. Now, be a love and open the door for me and I’ll get the kettle on”

“But I thought you met at the library?” said Sarah still puzzled

“Yes, that’s right love. Where’s my little Benji? Has he got a match today?”

“But it’s Sunday” said Sarah “and the library’s shut”

She paused for a second on the front step and clutched her bag closer to her side.

“I guess they must have opened up special for them, they’re a popular group. Now get the door open Sarah, I really need the loo!”

 

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Challenging Stereotype

A task from my writing course, to create a snapshot of a character that challenges the stereotype 

Mum made the best shortbread. It was a fact. If a plate of it didn’t appear at some point during a family gathering there would be uproar. Mum was the sun around which our family orbited. Every Sunday afternoon we’d gather at her little three bed semi with our ever growing entourage of partners, children and pets for an afternoon of family based banter, endless cups of tea and the famous shortbread.

But Mum had a secret. A secret that would put an end to those long, lazy Sunday afternoons, basking in her light and warmth and shortbread.

For her 70th birthday two years ago, Mum had requested a computer. There had been a collaborative sigh as each of us wondered whether we would be the ones tasked with showing her how to use it, but we obliged, clubbed together, and got her quite a nifty little state of the art laptop. We were surprised when she refused our tentative offers of help and informed us that she had found a group called Surfers of the Third Age, who gave free computer help to the over 60’s at her local library.

Nobody thought much more about it. Sunday gatherings continued. At first we would ask how she was getting on, hoping to get some laughs out of her attempts to conquer the virtual world but we were disappointed when none were forthcoming. She seemed to have taken to the world wide web like a teenager to Tinder, although she wouldn’t set up any social media accounts even though we begged her.

“Whats the point” she would say, ” I get to see your ugly mugs every week, why would I want to have access to your goings on 24-7?”

One Sunday, Mum wasn’t in when we arrived. We milled about on the small drive as phone calls were made to various siblings who hadn’t turned up yet. Did they know where she was? Who had a key? Had anyone spoken to her recently? Darren, newest addition to the family (eldest sisters second husband and still at the stage of trying to impress us) was just about to shin up a drainpipe and into an open window, when Mum arrived in a taxi.

She scolded us as she struggled to open the front door with her handbag held under her arm and stuffed with a package that was too large for it. She really did not know what all the fuss was about. When we questioned her as to where she had been she got uncharacteristically defensive.

“Out, just out! I still have a life you know!”

and she hurried upstairs with her bag still stuffed with the peculiar package.

That had been the beginning. If only one of us had been more astute, had challenged Mum about the package and Sunday morning taxi rides, perhaps the events that followed could have been prevented, but we were all too comfortable in our groove. Happy to keep circling in our orbits around her. No one wanted to be the asteroid that would send everyone spinning.

Mum managed to do that all on her own.

Idea for the start of a story

There was a fire burning at the end of his street. He knew this even though he was subterranean and bereft of air and light, because he had set it. Steadfast had woken him early that morning, had served him breakfast as usual and helped him into his clothes. His stomach knotted as he thought of Steadfast but there was no use dwelling on it. He was not surprised to find himself so easily consoled. He never doubted his unflinching capacity to self serve and Steadfast had been an expenditure. There wasn’t anyone he wouldn’t have sold for his own gains, except Mollie.

Hot, confined and dizzy with lack of air his thoughts turn to a memory of her. She is swinging out high over the lake in Gideon’s old T shirt and not much else. She throws her head back and squints into the sun, dark damp tendrils of hair cling to her back. She yells as she launches herself into the water and the gasp for air as she surfaces quickly turns to laughter.

Mollie. Was that her calling him? His brain is a sponge slowly filling with water. He thinks he can feel it seeping out of his nose. He draws the back of his hand across his face and it comes away hot, too sticky for water, must be blood of course. Gideon had caught him square in the face with his elbow as they tussled in the dirt. The world had shrunk to the space around them and the shouts of The Guardians had faded so completely that he felt as though he was under water, choking the life from Gideon in an ocean of dust and dirt and fish scales.

2nd draft

Danny took the stairs to his bedsit. It was on the seventeenth floor but he never took the lift. It wasn’t that he had a phobia, phobias were for the emotionally extravagant and he considered himself frugal in that department, it was just that he hated the closeness of strangers, the Great Unwashed as his dad delighted in calling them. That’s partly why Danny had put himself amongst them, to piss his dad off.

Danny enjoyed the feeling of the lactic acid building in his thighs as he ascended. Regular gym workouts kept him lean and muscular, and by the time he got to the last flight he was taking them in twos, grinning with the pain, showing teeth perfectly straight and white. He was still buzzing with adrenaline from the incident at work earlier, and his zealous run up seventeen flights had got him so pumped, that when he got through the door of his tiny apartment Danny felt huge, too huge, like Alice after eating the cake, he thought.  He knew that soon he would go past the point of no return, a balloon that gets one final catastrophic breath. But for this brief moment he was all consuming perfection, a paragon, a God.  The moment always tilted and slipped away, and although he had learnt that the key was not to grasp, he often did. The temptation to take another breath, to improve on perfection, was too great, and he would become his own terrorist, blowing up the sacred. The last time had almost cost him everything, but not again, he wouldn’t risk it again. He went into the bathroom and checked himself out in the mirror. His reflection stared back at him in defiance, wide dark eyes full of fury. “I know what you’re trying to do Danny, but why fight it? Don’t be a fucking coward Danny, you’re a fucking coward!” Danny gripped the sides of the sink; his hands seemed to take up the entire space. He snorted like a bull as he breathed out, and then he was breathing in, filling the cavity of his chest with a clarity that seeped through alveoli and into his bloodstream, sending out a limbic lullaby that soothed his brain, chasing away those urges that he had once found almost impossible to contain.

Moments later he was the right size once more. His phone was dancing silently face down on the glass coffee table. It was the office, his boss was probably calling to sack him, he answered it anyway and two minutes later he found himself unemployed again. One of the Great Unwashed. His Dad would be so proud. This made Danny smile. This, more than the incident at work, made Danny’s day.

first draft. Something I’m working on for a writing course.

Danny took the stairs to his bedsit. It was on the 17th floor but he never took the lift. It wasn’t that he had a phobia, phobias were for the weak minded, it was just he hated to be in that close proximity to others, the Great Unwashed as his dad delighted in calling them. That’s partly why Danny had put himself among them, to piss his dad off.

Danny enjoyed the feeling of the lactic acid building in his thighs as he ascended, by the time he got to the last flight he was taking them two at a time, grinning with the pain, showing teeth perfectly straight and white, disappointed that there were no more flights to climb. He was still buzzing from the adrenaline coursing through his veins from the incident at work earlier, and his zealous run up seventeen flights had got him truly pumped so that when he got through the door of his tiny apartment Danny felt huge, too huge for such a small place. Like Alice after eating that cake he thought, and he knew that soon he would be going past the point of no return, like a balloon that gets one breath too many. Everything in him was urging him to take that final breath, to create the explosion that would mean annihilation. He had succumbed to this urge before, too many times to count and the last time had almost cost him everything, but not again, he wouldn’t risk it again. He went into the bathroom and checked himself out in the mirror. His reflection stared back at him in defiance, wide dark eyes full of fury. “I know what you’re trying to do Danny, but why fight it? Don’t be a fucking coward Danny, you’re a fucking coward!” Danny gripped the sides of the sink; his hands seemed to take up the entire space. He snorted like a bull as he breathed out and then he was breathing in, filling the cavity of his chest with a clarity that seeped through alveoli and into his bloodstream, sending out a limbic lullaby that soothed his brain, chasing away those urges that he had once found almost impossible to contain.

Moments later he was the right size once more. His phone was dancing silently face down on the glass coffee table. It was the office, his boss was probably calling to sack him, he answered it anyway and two minutes later he found himself unemployed again. One of the Great Unwashed. His Dad would be so proud. This made Danny smile, this more than the incident at work, made Danny’s day.

2016 in Books

This year I failed to complete my Goodreads target of 40 books. Having said that I read some mighty long books this year so I’m not going to beat myself up about it!

Here is this years list in full

This year I read a lot of old titles. Some were beloved favourites from childhood (Earthsea) others were books that I finally got round to picking up again after a hiatus of over 20 years! (The Dark Tower series) but I also found some fabulous new (to me) authors that I’d heard rumour of but hadn’t got round to seeking out. I’m so glad I did that this year because I feel I’ve found a real  new favourite in China Mieville, and I also intend to read more Richard Morgan and Ken liu.

Here are my winners and losers of this years challenge

Favourite read: Perdido Street Station – China Mieville.  Very reminiscent of Mervyn Peak in his vivid descriptions of the intricate architecture of his strange worlds. Wonderfully flawed heroes, strange new species to discover. Can’t wait to read more!

Disappointed By: The Magicians – Lev Grossman. Uninteresting characters, predictable plot. Not for me.

Pleasant Surprise: Sorcerer of The WildeepsKai Ashante Wilson. This title popped up in a Facebook post from Tor Books  as a free download from their website. Absolutely fell in love with the main protagonist Demane. Will definitely be reading more of this author in the future.

Made me Cry Snot: The Book Thief- Marcus Zusak. Have had this book for several years (I think it was actually bought for my daughter) and only got round to reading it this year. Simple, powerful storytelling.

Best revisited: The Earthsea Trilogy – Ursula K LeGuin  I know that there are more books to the series but when I first read about the wonderful Ged in 1979 there were only three, and it was this memory that I wanted to re visit. I have these books to thank for my love of fantasy but also for the high standards I set myself when choosing a book from this genre. Le Guin is proof positive that you don’t need to write thousands of pages to tell a compelling story or to create rounded characters who we care about. A true masterpiece.

Most Bored by and nearly gave up on: Rivers of London – Ben Aaronvitch. I can imagine this as a fairly pleasant TV series but as a book it didn’t work for me as I didn’t think the writing was up to scratch.

Everyone should read: Freedom From The Known – Jiddu Krishnamurti – We live in troubled times. Civilization seems on the brink of disaster. The only way we can prevent this is to change what we believe it is to be civilized. We can only begin to do this by first looking within ourselves.

Seeing me into 2017: The Scar – China Mieville. I intend to read everything he has written by the end of this year!

Wishing You Many Happy Reads for 2017!