NEWSLETTER NO. 4 - A CHARACTER
My American Heritage Desk Dictionary has an expansive definition of the word character. In fact, there are nine headings – ranging from “the combination of qualities or features that makes one person . .different from another . . . and going on to address morality . . . person portrayed in a novel . . . an odd person . . . to a symbol, (such as a letter), etc.” It’s interesting to me as a writer that the word ‘character’ including both the foundation of writing - the letters on the page – and the characters in the novel. To a writer it is a very important word.
Feedback that I’ve received on drafts of my first novel - “Death & Taxes” was a good learning experience in understanding character development. One of my beta readers made two suggestions, both dealt with my characters. The first was that FBI Special Agent Hartmann was too perfect. He needed some flaws. Thus, Hartmann’s drinking was increased, and the hints about his being responsible for the death of the love of his life were added. For some reason, his sexual relationship with a subordinate did not seem to bother (or be a flaw) to the beta reader.
The second comment from the same beta reader and also from my line editor was that their favorite or most memorable character in the novel was Leslie, a young teenage girl that I’d just kind’ve threw into the story. This comment still befuddles me and makes me more interested in character development. Why had they selected and remembered Leslie?
To expand my writing ability and to get new ideas for stories I’m continually taking courses. In fact two of my current *FutureLearn, courses have me looking closely at characters.
My ‘Start Writing Fiction’ course is focusing on the central skill of developing characters, and the ‘Forensic Psychology: Witness Investigation’ course is helping me in my understanding of what makes a character that readers will remember and associate with.
In my writing course, we have been asked to start a story that we expand upon as we go through the class. Here are my first two weeks –
WEEK ONE - Characters Use of thoughts about their favorite place to write -
Tom opened his laptop and placed it on the library table in front of him. As he plugged the cord into the electrical socket, he glanced at the older gentlemen to his left who was reading the Wall Street Journal and then to the attractive young blond girl on his right. She had earplugs connected to her cell; her head was swaying rhythmically back-and-forth. Nice bod; nice legs he, thought. She was going to be a distraction. Oh well, I’ll just have to include her in my novel. In the large, quiet room with its high ceiling surrounded by books, his fingers hit key after key. One day my novel will be on one of those shelves.
God, this place sucks she thought, as she checked out the guy looking at her. Only old dick heads can get any inspiration here. He’s kind of cute. Wonder what he’s writing. Wish I could write like that. This essay will never get finished the way I’m going. Her head turned back to look at what she had written as she turned up the volume on her iPhone.
WEEK TWO – Characters Use of Dialogue
"Isn't it nice out here in the sunlight. Look at how blue the sky is today," the young girl says.
Before he could reply, she pulled the iPhone earplugs out, and let them dangle around her neck.
"Yes, it's a fantastic day. I seem to get the impression you didn't like it inside."
"You've got that right."
"What were you writing?"
"It's an essay for one of my university courses. I noticed you were very intent on what you were writing. What's got you so interested?"
"It's my first crime novel." There was a pause in his reply. A pleasant smile came over his face, as he continued, "After seeing you, I added you as one of the characters in my story."
"You've got to be kidding. Why would you do that? And, I sure hope I'm not the murder victim?"
"NO, you're not the murder victim. And I did that because you were distracting me."
With a curious look on her face, she responded, "Sorry about that. What did I do, to distract you?"
"Show up and cross those great legs of yours."
"Can I see what you wrote?"
In my Forensic Psychology course, I learned that most people make bad eye witnesses. Ninety-eight percent of use fall somewhere between what is termed a ‘Super Recognizer', and a person with ‘Prosopagnosia’ - a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces. Prosopagnosia is also known as face blindness.
I have met both. One was the host at Hurley’s in New York City, which I used to frequent and met a lot of AP and NBC reporters at the bar. He could connect the face and name of everyone (everyone) who ever came into the restaurant. The other was in a video shown in our class. A lady with Prosopagnosia related the story where one time she sat on a bus that had a video screen at the front showing the passengers, and she decided to watch herself. Suddenly the person she was watching on the screen got up and left the bus. Believe it or not, she does not recognize the faces of her kids nor her friend.
We humans have a hard time distinguishing between or describing faces. To me, this means that while a writer may describe physical features of a character, the thoughts, actions and dialogue are more important to the reader.
I was surprised to learn that our vocabulary only has a few words dedicated to describing an individual's facial features. The mind is structured to view and remember a face as a whole; not its individual features (nose, mouth, eyes).
Apparently, the mind generally does not do a good job of remembering or distinguishing faces. This was learned by law enforcement as they developed witness facial identification programs. Initially, there was the police artist who drew a face based on questions asked of a witness. Then there was the PhotoFIT program where the witness picked out noses, eyes, and ears from photographs that were combined together to construct a face, and finally, they moved to the EFIT-V Program where a series of whole faces are presented on a computer screen.
My fellow students and I used the two computer programs indicated above to construct the face of Actress Judy Dench. We were shown her picture and then asked to develop a photo using the program. Most of us agreed our final photos would not help the police locate Judy Dench.
Your comments and suggestions would be appreciated. How do you like the characters in my debut novel "Death & Taxes?"
Richard V. Rupp
* For those that are not familiar with FutureLearn, it is a UK-based organization that offers a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. If you want to keep you mind active and stay up-to-date, I would strongly recommend you check them out. The great thing about these on-line classes is that they include discussions with people from around the world.
P.S. I have found it is easier to read my newsletters on my website than in an email. Suggest you go to www.richardvrupp.com