Posts Tagged ‘character’

Sitting at the counter in Bette’s Ocean View Diner (no ocean, no view), squeezed between an elderly man on his left who, immediately upon sitting down, had placed a dental prosthetic in his glass, and a large matron on his right reeeking of patchouli and jabbering into a mobile phone, Abraham felt the beginnings of a migraine intrude into his awareness like the rusteed corners of household appliances poking through the surface of a stagnant junkyard pond. 

    It wasn’t exactly a headache, not yet.  His fingers tingled slightly and he could see his pulse out of the corner of  his eye as a kind of shimmery throbbing almost too subtle to notice. He was at a familiar tipping point.  The symptoms would either recede or blossom into full bore migraine, complete with nausea and vomiting. 

    The waitress dropped his salad in front of him with a clatter.  
    God damn it.

    He had asked for the dessing on the side.  On the plate in fornt of him, romaine, raddiccio, and frisee, fennel, walnuts and raisins, swam in an oily, vinegary soup.  He looked up, hoping to catch the waitress’ eye, but she was already hurtling towards another customer, balancing three plates aligned in a row on her extended arm.

    He speared a limp, dripping leaf and conveyed it to his mouth. The back of this throat felt scalded with vinegar, seared, and he coughed, earning a glare of disapproval from the perfumed woman. 

    “Sorry,” he said.  “Vinegar.”

    She looked him up and down and actually sniffed audibly.

    He speared another leaf, shook from it as much liquid as he could, and slurped the slimy thing down. He couldn’t take his eyes off the partial denture drowned in the glass to his left.  Small bubbles collected on its pink ridged surface.

    When Abraham was about half done with his salad, the waitress came by.  

    “How we doing?”

    “Good,” Abraham said.  “Good.”

    As if to demonstrate, he speared another dripping bouquet of greens and stuffed them into his mouth.

    “Asshole, I’m talking to you.”  A male voice from the fornt of the restaurant cut through the lunchtime buzz of conversation and brought it to a screeching halt. 

    Along with all the other patrons, Abraham looked over, craning his neck trying to see what was going on.  Two men in the waiting area, a young guy in a leather jacket, clearly the guy who had just spoken, leaning heavily into the personal space of a late middle-aged business type doing his best to ignore him. 

    “Yeah, that’s right.  I was sitting there for five minutes waiting for that lady to put on her meakeup and pull out of the space and you just come in, cut me off, and take it.  I was just passing by here and saw you.  Who the fuck do you think you are, man?  Where did you learn common courtesy?” 

    The businessman fidgeted, looking right and left, everywhere but at the other man. Someone in an apron hurried to the waiting area and spoke softly to the two men, touching them both on the shoulder.  After a few more words, the younger man waved his figner in the businessman’s face one last time and stalked out the door. 

    Abraham hadn’t realized he was holding his breath until he took in a long, shudderig gasp.  He’d been transfixed, pinned, incapable of movement. 

    His migraine symptoms were gone.

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• What is your character’s name? Does the character have a nickname?

Abraham Soloff.  No nickname, ever, not even “Abe.”

• What is your character’s hair color? Eye color?

Shaved head;  dark brown eyes, almost black.

• What kind of distinguishing facial features does your character have?

Intense gaze.  Smiles often but rarely laughs out loud.

• Does your character have a birthmark? Where is it? What about scars? How did he get them?

He has a burn scar that sprawls across his lower torso like an open hand.  He got it as a teenager working in a neighborhood paint store that caught fire

• Who are your character’s friends and family? Who does she surround herself with? Who are the people your character is closest to? Who does he wish he were closest to?

Abraham’s parents emigrated from Israel to the United States in the 70s.  They were both killed by a terrorist bomb when they were visiting Tel Aviv while Abraham was in graduate school at Cornell.  In spite  of this, Abraham is not a kneejerk Zionist.  He is failrly apolitical, a halfhearted Democrat, a pragmatist.  Every now and then, a wave of grief or rage washes over him.  He cannot identify the source of this discomfort.

Abraham is an Assistant Professor of Statistics at UC Berkeley.  He likes his colleagues well enough, and they seem to like him well enough, but he does not feel fulfilled in his current relationships.  Something is missing.

He has two sisters who he rarely speaks with, and a brother with who he has a tumultuous relationship, alternating hot and cold.    

• Where was your character born? Where has she lived since then? Where does she call home?

Born in Chicago.  Lives in Berkeley, California. 

• Where does your character go when he’s angry?

He gets in his car, a beater Corolla, pulls into traffic laying rubber, and drives very fast for 4 or 5 blocks, then, a little calmer, gets on the freeway and drives aimlessly until his mind is clear

• What is her biggest fear? Who has she told this to? Who would she never tell this to? Why?

Dying alone.  He has told nobody.

• Does she have a secret?

Shortly after his parents’ death, he was driving slightly drunk one evening and hit a pedestrian, a young woman out for a walk.   It was a dark street, deserted.  He drove away.  To this day, he does not know if she was killed or badly hurt.

• What makes your character laugh out loud?

Almost  nothing.

• When has your character been in love? Had a broken heart?

Abraham is currently single.  He once married a violinist in the San Francisco Symphony, but they split up after six months. 

Then dig deeper by asking more unconventional questions:

• What is in your character’s refrigerator right now? On her bedroom floor? On her nightstand? In her garbage can?


Tub of deli hummus

Blood oranges


Wilted lettuce

Bedroom floor:

Underwear, socks, spine-bent thriller, copied of mathematics research paper he is peer-reviewing.

• Look at your character’s feet. Describe what you see there. Does he wear dress shoes, gym shoes, or none at all? Is he in socks that are ratty and full of holes? Or is he wearing a pair of blue and gold slippers knitted by his grandmother?

Abraham usually wears comfortable, slightly expensive walking shoes – Rockport, etc. 

• When your character thinks of her childhood, what smell does she associate with it? Sauerkraut? Oatmeal cookies? Paint? Why is that smell so resonant for her?

Once a year, his family would trek from Chicago to the Rhode Island shore for 4 weeks where they shared ownership of a house on the beach with two other families.  The slightly sour smell of death that clings near the shore at low tide is ambrosia to him. 

• Your character is doing intense spring cleaning. What is easy for her to throw out? What is difficult for her to part with? Why?

Abraham is a fierce and aggressive cleaner.  He purges fearlessly, but sometimes at night, hovering on the edge of sleep, he will inventory what he has discarded.  Once, he spent hours digging through the trash for a ticket stub to a Chicago Bulls game that he and his Dad went to on their own when he was 14, but he could not fid it

• It’s Saturday at noon. What is your character doing? Give details. If he’s eating breakfast, what exactly does he eat? If she’s stretching out in her backyard to sun, what kind of blanket or towel does she lie on?

Abraham is sitting in his kitchen grading student papers.  The sun comes into the house in thick beams, filtered by the eucalyptus trees in the yard.  Fat motes of dust drift lazily in the golden shafts of light. 

• What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?

During one of their beach summers – he was perhaps 8 or 9 – Abraham and his father were driving at night on a narrow, dimly lit road.  Rounding a turn, they hit a dog.  Abraham remembers time slowing suddenly to a crawl:  his father’s belated pumping of the brakes, the dog, pale in the bright headlights, sailing limply through the air as if completely boneless.  The dog slammed hard into a tree and time resumed its normal flow.  His father got a flashlight from the trunk and the two of  them went to look at the dog.  It was clearly dead – eyes open, a froth of blood on its muzzle. Abraham’s father looked at him and shook his head.  He bent down, gathered the dead dog in  his arms, and took it back to the car, placing it on an old blanket in the trunk.  Abraham never asked his father what happened to the dog after that, and his father never spoke of it.

• Your character is getting ready for a night out. Where is she going? What does she wear? Who will she be with?

Abraham is going to  a “dinner club” outing – a kind of group blind date.  4 men and 4 women are thrown together on the basis of their answers to a questionnaire to assess compatibility.  He has done this twice before and had a miserable time, but still he attends because he feels he should.  He is dressed in academic casual – khakis, Merrills, workshirt, corduroy sport jacket.

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Here is the character developmet assignment I gave to my class.  The posts that follow show my take on the assignment. 

I find these kinds of exerecises very useful, even if I am in the middle of another work, even if I will never use the content.  They are akin to scales and arpeggios for the musician.

Part 1.

Fill out a character profile for this guy.

Part 2.

This character is having a quick bite to eat in a diner and there is a problem with the order. Show us how he handles the situation.

Right near him, a yelling match between two men escalates into a real physical fight, a fight that is spilling into his space. Show us how he handles this new turn of events.

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Gotham Writers’ Workshop, where I teach online fiction classes, has developed a great questionairre to help flesh out fictional characters.  It can also be found in their excellent book, Writing Fiction.  The “digging deeper” questions are especially interesting.

If you don’t like those, let Proust give your character the third degree.  (Every issue of VanityFair features a celebrity response to this questionairre).

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