Monday, August 3, 2009

Character Perspectives

Portrait of a Woman--1900--Olga Boznańska They walk purposefully toward me in the grocery stores. Their hair is gray or white. They sometimes use the shopping cart to aid their walking. They nearly always start off with a determined, “Honey?” when they talk to me.

I know what they want as soon as I see them. Why? It happens all the time.

I’m tall. They want me to reach something at the back of the top shelf. This item is usually on sale, they have an additional .75 cent off coupon (which will be doubled at the register) and the product has already had a tremendous run on it.

How does a simple thing like height change your perspective on things? I think everything about ourselves—if we’re attractive or not, our geographic location on earth, our level of education—colors our mindset and gives us insights, or possibly even prejudices, that others don’t share.

The first time I saw a picture of Michelle Obama, she stood alone with no frame of reference beside her. I knew immediately that she was tall, though. She wore flats with her dress. She rolled her shoulders in a sort of slump.

I don’t use character questionnaire sheets when developing my characters, but there are many of them online and I understand they can prove useful.

But I do want a handle on my character’s unique perspective on the world. What background, physical attributes, or upbringing contributed to his or her viewpoints? What insights does this perspective provide this character (especially useful to me in crafting a sleuth who relies on intuition to solve a case.)

How do your characters view the world?


Keith Raffel said...

How tall is tall?

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Keith--Oh, I'm not freakish or anything--5'10"-ish. That makes me taller than my girlfriends and eye to eye with my husband. My uncle is 6' 7"--thank GOD I'm not that tall.


G.M. Malliet said...

Elizabeth - I used to be 5'8", but I'm shrinking with age, like the witch in Wizard of Oz...I've nearly lost half an inch!

Since I want to live to be at least 130 years old, I imagine I'll be quite petite one day.

Galen Kindley--Author said...

Hey, E, you wrote you, "...want a handle on my character’s unique perspective on the world. What background, physical attributes, or upbringing contributed to his or her viewpoints?"

Either here, or probably better, in another post, can you share with us how, you do that. Doesn't sound like you use software, or maybe even outline these points. So, since that's a lot to know and remember how do you organize this material...or do you?

Thanks for the insights.

Best Regards, Galen
Imagineering Fiction Blog

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

G.M.--My mother and grandmother were both taller than me, but not anymore! :)

Galen--Good idea. I'll definitely post more on that. In a nutshell, though, I tend to focus most on the most important char's in the book, so not too much to keep track of. Plus, my characters tend to be based on real people, so I'm familiar with their background.

Helen Ginger said...

Good post, Elizabeth. Characters bring their own perspectives to the story, just like we do in our own lives. I grew up tall, just over 5'9". Now, I'm short - the shortest in my family. My perspective has changed.

Straight From Hel

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Helen--The younger generation is TALL. I can see how your perspective changed.

Marvin D Wilson said...

"How do your characters view the world?"

Always a good basic question/premise to have in mind when developing a character. Good post on this subject, Elizabeth.

The Old Silly

Alexis Grant said...

Interesting... I wouldn't have noticed those things because I'm not tall! You have such an eye for detail. (And thanks for the tweet!)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Thanks, Marvin!

Alexis--It's funny...I have an eye for detail for some things. And I'm completely oblivious to other things (innuendo, people hinting at things, etc.)

Anonymous said...

I don't use character check sheets either. I love to put together a hodge podge of diversity regarding my characters. my protagonist and his best friend, or side kick, couldn't be any more different.

Kinda like Seinfeld and George Castanza, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costella. Its this diversity and their different perceptions of the world that add so much depth to a story.

Stephen Tremp

Alan Orloff said...

Here's my problem (among many): My characters usually view their worlds through my eyes--my values, my likes and dislikes, etc. Unfortunately, this makes for very similar (and boring, I'll admit) characters.

Sometimes I have trouble getting into the mind of a drug dealer or masochist or whatever. It's all just supposition when it comes to what they'd do in certain situations. Oh well, I guess that's why they call it fiction.

Elspeth Antonelli said...

All my characters seem to spring forth fully formed. Their attitudes come from their own histories - not any particular physical attribute. I have learned to write mini-biographies which help to keep dates, events from each of their pasts clear.

If I listen, they speak. Sometimes quietly, and sometimes I swear they just go away. But I can (when the muse is smiling) close my eyes, watch the scene and then do my best to describe what I saw.

Just re-read what I've written. I sound nuts. I'm not - or no more than anyone else!

Wonderful subject, Elizabeth!

Elspeth (we have the same name - just different versions!)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Stephen--Sounds like your characters are richly-textured.

Alan--That would be hard for me, too. Probably why I can't write thrillers well.

Elspeth--I love the idea of writing a mini-bio. That would definitely help me out as I switch back and forth between different series.

Remember the old riddle?: Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy and Bess,
They all went together to seek a bird's nest.
They found a bird's nest with five eggs in,
They all took one, and left four in.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

People watching is one of my favorite past times. My characters tend to be a conglomeration of looks, quirks and traits that I’ve seen. I keep track of their tendencies by the archaic method of index cards.

I’m often approached in grocery stores for top shelf items, too!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Jane--Index cards are another good idea.

Glad there's another top-shelf woman out there. We tall girls have got to stick together. :)


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Guilty - my hair isn't gray or white (well, it is underneath the dye job), and I don't use a cart for support (yet), but I'm always on the lookout for tall people in the grocery store.

As for characters, my rule of thumb is, you don't know where the character is going in action or deed until you know where they've been. I always draft up a little backstory for each one. Even the smallest characters get a paragraph of background. And they always surprise me.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Sue Ann--Good point. Knowing their background helps determine their future, for sure.

The Practical Preserver said...

When I was taller, I was younger. So Do age and shorter matter? Fuel for thought. My protagonist is quite tall (5"11"). Wonder why I did that??

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Karen--Both my books have tall women in them. I think it's because there are so many tall people in my family. For me, it just means I don't wear heels a lot or else I get odd looks. I always thought short was much cuter on women. I'm sure I'm entering my shrinking years from this point.

Katie Ganshert said...

What an excellent post! So true - it's important to know our characters well and understand their perspective. Thanks for the reminder.

I'm a tall girl too - 5'9"ish. :)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Katie--Thanks for coming by!