In Which My Toddler Helps Me Think Of “Character” In A New Way

Our son, the one we call “B-Dub,” thinks of the people in his life abstractly.

Example: if he sees a magazine ad featuring the car you drive, he’ll point to it and say your name. If he sees a spot on the floor where one of the dogs likes to lie down, he’ll say that dog’s name. But it can be even more abstract, to the point where it takes us time to figure out what the connection is —  like it’s a little bit of a puzzle. He pointed to a picture at one point of very grungy, work-dirty hands and said, “Pop-Pop,” and it’s not like his grandfather is some kind of filth-caked, rail-riding hobo. But — but — his Pop-Pop is in fact often working outside. In the literal sense, he’s frequently getting his hands dirty.

Sometimes it’ll be a color. Or an image. Or a sound.

But he’ll associate people with things both concrete and abstract.

And I thought, what a darling way to help us writery-types conceive of character.

We’re used to writing out descriptions of character — we may in our notes list a series of traits (selfish, two kids, has a pet monkey despite being allergic to monkey bites, is a zombie, obsessed with Law & Order: SVU). But it’s interesting to instead — or, more appropriately, in addition to — conjure a series of images that call to mind that character for you.

Say, ten images. Or however many you need to find the character in there.

A cigarette burning on a porch rail.

A copy of a 1970s-era MAD magazine. Shoes with clayey mud clinging to the treads.

A cup of coffee so lightened with cream it might as well be milk.

A monkey bite on the Achilles’ heel.

An infected nipple that looks like a human face.

Whatever, etcetera, blah blah blah.

Some of the images can be literal. Some more figurative or at the least more distant from the character’s actual present-day existence. What do the images mean? What do they say about the character?

Show, Don’t Tell is a piece of advice that’s mostly right and occasionally very wrong, but we generally think of it in terms of the end result — we put the practice into the prose. But here it we could put the practice into the practice, meaning, we can show ourselves rather than tell ourselves all the little pieces that go into the stories we want to share. It’s a good way to think visually and abstractly instead of textually and literally.

Hell, you could even cut images out of magazines and hang them on a corkboard.

I have a corkboard in my office.

Of course, it’s covered in images cut out from TIGER BEAT magazine.

Don’t judge me.

Don’t you dare judge me.

I guess it’s time to take down my spread of sexy Star Trek boy-toy, Wil Wheaton.

18 comments

  • I used to fill out these ridiculously detailed “character sheets” that asked all kinds of things about characters. I would fill them out and know all sorts of things ABOUT a character, but I wouldn’t really KNOW the character. Discovered that it was much, much more efficient to just take the character for a test drive; climbing inside their head and testing out a few situations would give me way more insight.

  • Your kid is ace.

    Let’s apply that logic to the Chuck Wendig character:

    – A spittle flecked key board?
    – An office sized rubbish bin, overflowing with screwed up bits of paper?

    Any one else care to join in?

  • Toddlers are very cool like that.

    I found that I spent a lot of time in the first few chapters just imagining my character. Not how she looked, or what she wore, but how she thought. How I would think if I was her. I breathed life into her and now I can imagine the way she folds her hands at night. Which is kind of weird, but also pretty cool. Of course, my kids climbed all over me while I was busy trying to imagine things, so there are holes still.

  • This is great advice Chuck and used properly I think it can really help conjure the character.

    Kids are great that way, ti reminds me of my first child, she related colors to things. Anything red was “Apple, apple” and tighty whites were “Sugar panties”. What? Don’t look at me like that.

  • Well said. My kids usually just make up bad jokes and tell me they are going to “wreck it.” I will try to work this into a new character, but if that character wets the bed, I am guessing nobody will want to read it .

  • That’s one of my favorite things about parenting. That weird moment when your kid presents you with some combination or puzzle that at first makes no sense, then all at once you figure it out and you’re just boggled by the unique cleverness of it. when you look at the world through a child’s eyes, free of preconceived notions, there’s so much potential in the ordinary. Truly mind blowing.

  • This is something I actually learned about when interacting with fanfiction communities. (Shut the fuck up.) It’s very common in those circles to have chapter and/or story playlists with little notes from the author saying, “This one’s lyrics don’t have anything to do with the chapter, but the *mood* was perfect for the character here,” or conversely, “The lyrics to this one are just perfect for this chapter.”
    It’s also common to have witfits–daily prompts–in image form. Words are most common, though. I’m always amazed to watch several authors spin radically different stories out of the exact same “inspirations.”
    Like DelilahSDawson mentioned, making character and/or story boards on Pinterest is one tool I’ve seen used. It’s gaining in popularity. Others make playlists on Spotify. Others even make Twitter feeds for their characters and interact with their readers that way, which I’ve always found fascinating. I’ve only seen it done well once, really–otherwise it seems like a truly fantastic way to avoid actually writing that character. What was it that Joyce Carol Oates tweeted recently? “Composing a tweet mimics the brain-activity of actual work & is thus highly addictive without being highly productive.” Yeah. That.

    As for myself and my own writing… I’ve always found it difficult to think in a straight line anyways, so pulling a petrichor on my plot or character has always come naturally. Though I have a similar criticism of character sheets that T.I. Bodine has, I also find them useful for the purposes of herding my cat-thoughts.

  • I’ll join.

    – Long forgotten bowl of melted ice cream…

    – Pants lying on the floor of an office decorated with the skin and teeth of his enemies…

    Anyone else? :)

  • Row of beer cans on the window. Bottles of stronger stuff under the desk… Dart board on the wall with picture of latest annoyance in the middle…
    :)

  • When I was a kid, I would look at the mustached face on the Pringles can and call it “Daddy.” That’s around the time my mom stopped taking me with her to the grocery store.

  • Part of why I’m such a Scrivener acolyte – I love having images right there that evoke the character I’m writing.

    Also, it’s NEVER time to take down your Wil Wheaton posters.

  • When my daughter saw her first motorcycle she was standing (barely standing) outside watching her father wash a car. For a long time thereafter, a motorcycle was a “washing car.”

    I don’t know if that will help anyone in character development…

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