Sunday, March 8, 2009

Characters, Give Me Characters

Here's my question for my fellow writers: How do you create characters that pop?

You know, those compelling characters in a novel or story that you love and never want to leave. What are your writing techniques that draw your readers to your characters?

Aggie in her recent post wrote about the psychological landscape of a character, and asked how a writer portrays that inner landscape. My question: is that always necessary? Can you create compelling characters without this complex mental state?

This is the aspect of writing that I struggle with the most: characters, bringing them alive on the page, pulling the reader into their world. On the other hand, I find writing descriptions the easy part of the craft. I love putting beautiful words on the page, using the senses, creating images.

The rock rose high off the plains like a Hawaiian wave he ached to surf, ribbons of red coursing its grainy texture. He felt the pull of the rock, anxious to begin. Let’s go, Jeremy’s voice whispered.

Tim ran the palm of his hand along the sandpaper surface. Placing the toe of his shoe in a small indentation, barely more than a pockmark on an acned face, he started to climb. He felt like an infant navigating a grand staircase. The sun beat at this back. Warm beads of sweat trickled under his t-shirt. His flexed muscles kept him pinned to the cliff’s face. He reached the top, a landing heading off to nowhere, and looked back across the horizon, his blue pickup little more than an oddly-placed pixel in a picture against the red and beige background.

That's the start of a short-short I wrote called "The Grand Staircase." I took up fiction writing nearly three years ago as a way to use my creativity, to create balance in my life, and because I love books and literature.

Sherman Alexie's "The Toughest Indian in the World" is one of the best short stories I've read; I thought about it for two weeks after reading it the first time. John Steinbeck is among my favorite authors; East of Eden and "The Red Pony" two of my particular favorites. Willa Cather (Death Comes for the Archbishop), Charles Dickens (Great Expectations), Shakespeare (the complete works).

But I have to say my favorite book of all times is Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. I've read it cover-to-cover three times, and pieces of it five times. Of course it comes back to the characters. I love them all: Nannie, the old curmudgeon Garnett, Deanna, Eddie Bondo, Lusa. They feel like old friends. I'm always sad to say goodbye to them when I turn the last page. But beyond the characters, I marvel at the construction of the novel - three parallel yet intertwined stories told during the same summer - and the message that all life is interconnected. Most of all, I love the lush, sensuous, lyrical writing. The wonderful descriptions. The way it reads like a song.

I majored in English as an undergraduate at Stanford. After a brief stint as a technical editor, I found my way to software, going back to graduate school for a masters in computer engineering along the way.

These days, on any given work day, I can be found telling people what to do. Technically, it is not really telling. My upbringing by an ex-Air Force officer father of German descent put me off the direct approach to task masterdom. My approach is more suggestive – a Socratic method to project management. "Has the requirements document been released?" "Will design finish this week?" Team members unlucky enough to have their tasks hit the critical path are likely to hear the three dreaded words, "I am concerned."

When not keeping projects on track, I write short stories and give my time away to women's organizations pushing the equality envelope. I have dreams of publishing a book of stories, and working on a Presidential candidate's campaign. Until dreams come true, I can be seen power-walking my Palo Alto neighborhood, usually headed to the nearest Peet's for a sinfully delicious chai latte. Or hanging out at Kepler's, the best bookstore in the world.


  1. Hi Bobbie,
    I admire so-called parallel characterization of father and son in Alistair MacLeod's short story “The Boat,” in which he develops both characters side by side. The father’s character unfolds by the direct presentation of his appearance, action and speech, all filtered trough his son’s point of view. The narrator’s attitude reveals his own personality. So, it's all about the attitude or point of view (in writing descriptions too).

  2. Victoria,
    Love your published writings and am thoroughly enjoying your blogging. Thanks for the book recommendations.