Friday, October 22, 2010

Is your character a Gumby?

Blessed are the flexible for they shall not get bent out of shape.
––Kim Downey

I have followed this philosophy for years. Well, okay, I admit I’ve failed at times to bend with the breeze. However, my husband lives the above quote in an organic sense. He’s as calm as a summer sea––always. Which sometimes drives me to the point of distraction or, more importantly, as a fiction writer, to boredom. No romance author wants to write about someone who doesn’t emotionally react to events.
During story development I decide on a character’s flexibility. Is she limber as Gumby or rigid as a walking stick? Or somewhere in between? The differences lead to surprises, an important reason we keep turning the pages of a book. Here’s one over-used, classic example. To save her child, a prim librarian jumps on the back of a Harley with a tattooed, beer-guzzling biker. Since she’s an inflexible person her reactions jack up the scene. Lots of sparks fly between them.
I’ve written my fair share of scenes lacking pizzazz, usually as my first draft. My heroine is stuck on cruise control. That’s when I try revving pass the red line, overshooting her flexibility limit. Suddenly you’re writing emotionally-driven dialogue and action scenes. Hey, she yells at me while madly waving her hand, I’m totally bent out of shape here! Sorry, I tell her, but I get the fun bonus of vicariously jumping on the back of that Harley and wrapping my arms around a dangerous Hell’s Angel.
Another way to look at character flexibility is through the lens of ambivalence. Does my heroine see the world as black-and-white or shades of gray? I once read an article titled Why So Many people Can’t Make Decisions. It included a simple checklist to find your shade. The truth is we’re not totally in one camp or the other, which offers more opportunities to give my heroine conflicting opinions. Now she’s twisting in two directions and definitely giving me the evil eye.
I tell her I didn’t mean to create all this anxiety and stress in her life, but she is in the middle of my story. And the fun just gets better and better.

I’ll close by sharing a little secret. My husband has a motorcycle so I experience, firsthand, the thrill of riding behind a man with a hot, roaring engine between our legs. Talk about symbolism!
I’m always searching for additions to my writer’s toolbox when it comes to character development. If you have a favorite tool I’d love for you to share it with us.


Carolyn Hughey said...

Sheila, you're a biker chick? :-)

My husband is a very calming influence in my life, and thank God, because at times I'm like a blender on high speed without the lid.

Good post! Thanks.

Sheila Tenold said...

Yeah, I'm a biker chick though my husband is definitely no Hell's Angel. Our third date involved riding on his motorcycle. That hooked me.

I love your blender anology, Carolyn! Don't they say opposites attract--and for a darned good reason.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

I learned emotions from watching my hubby and daughters. I came from parents who didn't show emotions that much. My husband is partially Italian and his emotional peaks are amazing, and our daughters as well. If I had to choose, I like the more vibrant rather than the easy go type personality. :)

Sheila Tenold said...

I totally agree with you, Paisley. For writing romances my husband's Mr. Cool persona is limiting.
I watch my siblings and record lots of emotonal reactions, and that includes my brother, bless his romantic heart.

Jill James said...

Sheila, love the look at how to make the characters leap off the page. We have people with Autism and Asperger's in my family so emotions aren't hard to find, even on a good day. I think I would like a Mr. Cool and Calm as a pond on a spring day.

Sheila Tenold said...

Jill, your family sounds more interesting than mine. At least from a writer's perspective.

Still, Mr. Calm and Cool is great in a crisis. I have no worries in that department.

Mona Risk said...

I love your post Sheila. My DH is the quiet, calm type, while you guess, I am the absolute opposite. As you say, I can count on him in crisis time.

Lee said...

I wish I could give you some great advice for that writer's toolbox, but I'm at a loss. I'd say going for a long walk calms my characters and me right into muse mode.

Joanne said...

A writer's toolbox (at least, mine) is ever-changing. Lately I've discovered I write better when I simply go out and enjoy the outdoors.