Not long ago I was honored at work for my fifteen year anniversary of employment there. Along with a catalog of nifty gifts to choose from, they also passed around a journal and wrote entries to me or about me. Then on the actual day they took thirty minutes of a meeting to say wonderfully nice things about me.
It was, upon reflecting on it, a bit like being at my own memorial service. It was something many people may never get to experience while alive. There were a couple of themes that emerged from both the journal and the things they said.
The main theme was passion. That word was used a lot, but so were “zest for life” and “enthusiasm.” It was a little surprising to me. If I were choosing the theme for me I’m not sure it would have been so pleasant.
What was even more interesting were the ways my fellow co-workers said I show this passion. Some talked about the tone in my voice when I talk about something exciting. Some talked about my laugh and the contagious nature of my excitement. Many talked about my stories, both the content and the way I tell them.
I say all of this because it wasn’t until I was reading one of my January reads, “The Negative Trait Thesaurus”, that I started to connect some dots on character development.
Suddenly, I began looking at the characters in my fictional world and wondering what would their fellow character say about them at their memorial service? What stories would they tell to drive home their point that their friend or family member was kind or mature or giving or any other personality trait.
Now, the memorial services I’ve attended often sweep over those aspects of a person’s nature that are more negative and play up those that are more positive. But, sometimes positive traits, if taken far enough, can turn into something not very pretty.
My passion? It can turn from enthusiasm or zeal to fanatical or single-mindedness or obsession. It probably has on several occasions.
The exercise I’ve been taking myself through is a series of questions.
- What one word would others use to describe them? Often, everybody in their world will come to the same conclusion, maybe not using the same exact words. What is that one word?
- What story would they use to illustrate their point? This may be back story and may never make it into the novel, but learning the story will help me dig into the actions and expressions.
- What negative trait are they sweeping over in their attempt to eulogize their friend or family member? Listen to the story they tell, what part is funny or uncomfortable? Which part feels like their covering a deeper meaning?
- When the family and friends are gathered at the coffee and cookie table after the memorial service, what are they saying to each other about the character? You know, the whispered stories or quietly stated sentiments.
Some other great resources on character development:
“The 9 Ingredients of Character Development” by Chuck Sambuchino
“Character Baking” on Black Ophelia’s blog.
“Create your characters from different moulds” on Roz Morris’ blog.