What makes a character come alive in a news report, work of fantasy, memoir or mystery-thriller?
Readers say they enjoy their lovers and villains, mothers and neighbors to be complicated, passionate, painted in vivid hues, believable and consistent, even if being constantly inconsistent is the character’s only consistency.
“Sitting in black revolving chair, my chin in a rest, my forehead against a strap, and facing an intense light about to be shined on my inner eye, while the doctor at his illuminated glass counter made entries into my record, I turned pessimistic.” ~ Harriet Doerr
The reader could cut the palpable tension in the narrator’s mind with a dull scalpel. Why is Ms. Inner Eye even in the doctor’s office? What conflict(s) might be poised to leapfrog from languorous lounging on a lily pad to violently and irreparably shatter the pristine surface of the pond that has pooled her mundane and entirely matronly 57 years?
We simply have no choice – we must keep reading. We care what happens to this woman. Indeed, she has entered the open door of our hearts as brazenly and uninvited as Goldilocks, is getting comfortable in our heads and is warming her size 10-AA feet on the crackling fire of our curiosity. She is no longer a character in a story, she is someone we either know, or must get to know. Now!
Please enjoy the following examples, chew them slowly, savoring every intriguing bite.
“I opened my eyes to the sound of new people brushing past my aisle seat. And looked up to see a colored woman holding a large sleeping baby, who, with the heaviness of sleep, his arms so tight around her neck, seemed to be pulling her head down. I looked around and noticed that I was in the last white row.” ~Grace Paley
“They sat at the Martinique Café, a café frequented by mulattos, prize fighters, drug addicts. He had chosen dark corner of the café and now he bent over and began to kiss her. He did not pause. He kept his mouth on hers and did not move. She dissolved in this kiss.” ~Anais Nin
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked outside of the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming from the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.” ~ Jeannette Walls
“Did Will love Emma? I’m certain he did. The memory of his hand wrapped around my arm and his whisper, this part of her makes you want to hold on, still makes me shiver sometimes when others touched me there, because I remember the longing in his voice to touch his wife there when he was touching me.” ~ Sarah Blake
“I was coming back from the grocery store with two bags of groceries when I saw her there with her dirty-faced toddler. I offered her an orange, then my loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter. I nearly croaked then I heard the sound of crying coming from the cooler on the ground behind her, looked inside to see a baby.” ~ Yvonne Daley
“Blond hair and anorexia were passed down like family jewels to my sisters, but not to me, the brown-haired blob. I did not know who I was or wanted to be, but then again, neither did my parents. My grandparents anglicized their names and left their Jewish heritage behind when they fled Poland to America years before. And don’t even ask me about my immediate family. They just mimicked the Long Island losers they befriended at the WASP Country Club; no, that wasn’t its name, but it should have been.” ~ Becca Chopra
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R. R. Harris
Author of Double Take, a mystery set on the Big Island of Hawaii and set for publication on Amazon, Fall 2013.