Acquaintance or Friend: How well do you know your character?

Today I have something special for you — a guest blog by Rhay Christou.

A word of introduction is necessary. Some of you know that I teach at Lawson Writers Academy. Rhay is one of my fellow teachers. She wrote this to share, and graciously allowed me to reprint it here.

This is a powerful writing exercise. Enjoy. I’m hoping to share some PowerPoints from my characters in the next few weeks. Maybe you’ll share some as well!

–Deleyna

From Rhay:

As writers we create characters, as people we create friends, but as we all know neither comes in a one-size-fits-all.

There are folks we know from the bus stop, the water cooler, the break room, the gal at the supermarket. We know she has blond hair and blue eyes, ripped abs, a bad knee from standing all day. We might know their name. Might’ve noticed the tiny scar she has at the her eye-line. We ask the how-you-doing, how’s the kids, grand-kids, life kind of questions. We talk about the weather, nod, smile, move on.

But are these friends?

Likely not. These are simply the people that pepper our lives.

Our friends, however, are more. Often there are no smiles or nods and definitely no moving on.

We share our lives with these people.  We know what they are doing this weekend or next week, we fill up their trough with our stories and in turned get filled theirs. These are intimate, powerful, vulnerable relationships.

The humanity of writing

Perhaps it is this ability to forge such connections that leaves me a tad flabbergasted when I read some stories.

I Know the character is tall, blond, has a sunflower tat on her ankle. I know she was left broken-hearted, never recovered, has a mean mom and a great dad. However, I don’t know what any of this means to the character.

I don’t know the character, and so I don’t connect. Or care. Not caring is a huge thing because we are asking a reader to give time, energy and effort to our stories and if we don’t offer that “caring” in return, we are not keeping our promise to entertain. In essence, we are wasting the readers time.

Caring is the key to connecting our readers to our stories. Knowing the characters is the key caring, but if we haven’t forged a connection, a friendship if you will, with our characters, we cannot hope to create that connection for the reader.

Know your character.

Like people, characters do not spring fully formed. We are a collection of past experiences, slow growth, the same mistake, a sudden shock. 

These moments in your character’s life define character and will have a lasting impact on story. He’ll either try to mask his weakness or be brave and show his truth.

Either way, knowing your character means seeing her as a person before she walked onto the page.

PowerPoint memory (PPM)

Think about yourself, your joys, weaknesses, secrets you don’t share.

I bet most come from your experiences. The great times and the baggage times. But have you thought about the moments that brought you to you? What memories connect to your vulnerability?

Example: My first PPM was around two. I couldn’t tell you what our house looked like, but I remember standing on the cracked driveway between the big car and our gray home.

The cold Michigan air and sky made everything feel big and scary, especially my mother, who seemed like an angry giant ready to devour me.

Her bony finger pointed at the house, or more precisely at the scrawl of black crayon scribbled on our house. I can’t remember what she said or what happened, but it is a vivid mental image.  

It was a PPM for me. The first time, I realized I could be naughty, make my mother angry, do something wrong. More importantly, I remember that I did not like the feeling. 

Another time,  I’m on the carport floor playing with my little people and blocks and singing a silly made-up song and loving my game.

That’s when two kids skipped by, mimicked my song, laughed at me.

Explanation: As solitary moments these memories mean nothing, but each had a powerful impact on the who I brought into my story. The PPMs shaped me into a person who would wear the appropriate mask.

Loud and easy to laugh at myself. If I laugh, others laughing doesn’t hurt. Always striving to make others happy because I didn’t like people being mad at me.

Our PowerPoint past creates our vulnerabilities.

You may think you know character. And you may be right, but I’m betting if you take the time to create a pre-story timeline, you’ll discover a thing or two you didn’t know.

Pre-story PowerPoint timeline.

With a notebook and pen in hand, get away from your computer.

Think about the character you have on your page.

What do you know about your characters wants, needs, past? His actions, behaviors, goals?

Go deeper.

 Create a pre-story timeline of PPMs.

  • Fights
  • Arguments
  • Humiliations
  • Losses
  • Moments of pure joy
  • Resonating moments and memories

Try to include at least two PPMs for each decade.

  • Some of these memories might be larger than others.
  • Some might introduce people from the past.
  • Some might be scenes.
  • Some may be blips.

Explore. Play. Let your mind free and have fun delving into someone else.

Once you’ve done your timeline, step away for a bit and come back with fresh eyes.

  • Circle any new information.
  • Highlight new PPMs.
  • Identify feelings attached to those PPMs.
  • How do those moments or feelings connect?
  • How do the feelings impact the character that is about to step into the story?
  • How did the situations impact your character?
  • Which PPM is the longest and most detailed? This memory is probably telling you something important about your character. It is most likely a defining moment in your character’s life.

While much of what you have created may never make it into your story, what you have created will empower how your character, acts, reacts, relates and interacts within your story.

So what have you discovered? Would love to hear in the comments.

About Rhay:

The two things I love most in the world are teaching and creative writing. With my MFA in writing from Vermont College, I have had the great fortune to combine the two. Since graduating I’ve taught everything from creative writing to academic writing at the university level as well as writing workshop on the lovely island of Cyprus, in Greece and the USA, as well as offering several classes at Lawson Writers Academy. 

For more information about this month’s class, Creating Compelling Characters, visit me here: https://www.margielawson.com/product/oct-2019-create-compelling-characters/

13 thoughts on “Acquaintance or Friend: How well do you know your character?

  1. I absolutely loved this. Power Point Memory. The book I’m working on is almost finished, but I’m going to make a list for my main characters when I get to the edits.

    Reading this post made my own characters jump in and tell me to add this. Delete that.

    I even had my own first memory come to life. When I was between two and three my daddy took me to Western Auto with him. He let me ride a wooden red and black spring horse while he shopped. When it came time to leave I cried and refused to get off. I remember that part. Daddy used to tell the story and laugh because he had to buy the horse to get me off of it. He also said that was the start of my obsession with horses. And, at 68 I’m still obsessed.

    Great post Rhay.

    • Rhay Christou says:

      Hey Winona,

      Love your horse story! Yep, it is amazing what we discovered about ourselves when we start to explore our characters. And yeah, this exercise is so much fun for exploring them. We get to see them as whole people. If you would like to share your discoveries, I would love to see. I’m here all day.

      Thanks for the comment and sooooo glad you found the article useful.
      Mucho love
      Rhay

  2. Here’s my first PPM memory. I was about 3.

    I’m in the sun and my head hurts.

    My mother sends me inside.

    My father yells at me because I’m supposed to be outside.

    I remember running. I remember closing a door and hiding under the bed. I remember the door breaking down.

    Thankfully, I have no memory after that.

    My father rarely mentioned the story, but when he did he would always say, “She should have just told me she had heat stroke!”

    Um. Yeah.

    Those early memories DO have a profound affect on our lives. I’m realizing that I’ve never delved into that part of my characters…and I simply MUST!

    • Rhay Christou says:

      Oh what a scary experience for a little girl, but so great that you can see how delving into these moments of your characters can add such depth. If you get a chance to explore and want to share a couple, I would surely love to hear!!! Might even have a question or two to push you even deeper….

      So glad the article resonated with you and thanks for the comment.
      Mucho love
      Rhay

  3. Mary Chase says:

    It’s interesting to think about. I’m trying (not too successfully yet!) to do prep for Nanowrimo and I need to get my characters figured out. This exercise should help! Thanks so much for sharing.

    • I know! I can’t believe Nano is so close. I’m NOT going to be ready. But I love this exercise…and I’m so grateful to Rhay for letting me share it here!

  4. Rhay Christou says:

    Hey Mary,
    It is a great way to get those characters developed before diving into your work. While much of what you discover won’t actually make your nano novel, it will definitely empower how you put them on the page. Want to share a memory or two, I’m here.
    Mucho love
    Rhay

  5. Robbin Luckett says:

    A power point memory that impacted my life goes back to when I was seven years old. Dad took the family on a yearly vacation, which translates to road trip! We always stayed at Holiday Inn’s. Dad taught me how to swim. Mom was afraid of the water because her father drowned on a fishing trip. I learned how to dive off the diving board, impressing everyone at the pool. Dad would send me up to the board and I would perform for others. I still find myself performing. Except, I’ve learned that I don’t need man’s/woman’s approval. Miss you Rhay!

    • Rhay Christou says:

      Oh Robbin,
      I miss you so much and what an awesome memory! So heartbreaking for your mom, but so empowering that you outgrew your need to impress but not your desire to perform. What a great PPM and I can totally see a character shaped by this kind of event too.

      You totally ROCK!
      Mucho love
      Rhay

  6. Jay says:

    Hi Rhay. It’s been a while since your Dev Edits class, but what fun I had there.
    One outstanding childhood memory is ghastly. My older sister decided to push my young face against the hot oven door. I left a layer of skin on the glass. Another time she threw an apple in my face, made my nose bleed. I know I’m safe here, but she always challenged me, picked on me, even in recent years before she died.

    Now onto the best PPM, one I cherish – and a possible reason for the above – Mum used to comb and fiddle with my long hair by the fire at night. I wish she could be here to do it now.
    And I just realised I have this in my novel – except my POV character is envious of her brother receiving the love when her Mum stopped loving her after she caused a horrible accident.

    • Rhay Christou says:

      Hey Jay,
      So great to see you again, and oh my what sad, scary and painful memories. And what power you have to use those memories in a way that will resonate and be meaningful to your readers. There is likely not a kid in the world who is not in some way envious of their sibling–yours albeit took it to a whole new level–but such courage you have to take those memories and use them for the benefit of your readers. You totally rock!
      Mucho love
      Rhay

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