Monday, February 13, 2012

What Guinea Pigs Taught Me About Making Characters

            My guinea pigs are young; under a year old. They are small; less than 5 pound together. They talk in little chirps which I pretend to interpret, yet even with all the websites telling me what they mean, I still have no freakin' clue. They run around the cage in the morning and at night (exactly when I don't want them to). I've never seen them sleep. When I walk close or make a loud sound, they scurry like I just let off a bomb. They are weird and, most of the time, I don't understand them at all.

So what could these little creatures possible have taught me about revealing who my characters are?

           They've shown me that the best way to give a reader a sense of a character's personality is to show them. Don't tell them. Don't even have someone say it. It's all about actions. Forget the words, the thoughts, or the dialogue. Don't get me wrong, the things people say and how they say them and all that definitely create a character but doesn't the phrase "Words don't matter, only actions" have some importance? A dynamic character is made from having a multi-facted personality. They don't act the same in all situations. So why not have the protagonist think one way about someone and then have that someone's actions contradict it. People judge. Harshly. They don't take everything into account when they judge a person, so revealing that their ideas are wrong through actions is a great way to give another character depth.

            Back to Fred and Albert. It's funny how these tiny hairy creatures can distinguish themselves from one another just by some simple actions. Fred, for example, sometimes bites me when I take him out of the cage---from this you would assume that he's nervous and doesn't enjoy people. Albert never bites. Every time I clean their cage, Albert is the first one to break out of whatever makeshift fence I create for them---without him saying a word you think Albert is probably smart, clever and brave. Fred always watches what Albert does then follows him out (maybe Fred is the smart one....)

           See what I mean? Little actions that give a big impression about characters. It's incredible that you can tell what an animal is thinking even though they don't have facial expressions (I'm not counting growling or anything like that).

So let's set the scene:

Amy walks into the house behind her friend Katey. She looks at the floor, lightly touching Katey's jacket from behind through a group of people. She smiles with closed lips, only making eye contact with a few people. Scratching her head, she then turns the gesture into a slight wave.

            Here I left out any thought process, any emotions, any talking (any creativity really) but you get my point. You can tell just by her actions that Amy is probably shy and uncomfortable in the situation. Maybe she doesn't really like large groups or to meet new people. Someone didn't say "Oh that Amy looks uncomfortable" or Amy didn't think Wow, I really hate being around people. Grrrr. But the impression of Amy is still reached by the reader.
            What I'm saying is that it's easy to make one of your character say a person is brave or smart or cheery. It's completely another thing to show it through their actions but oh so important. If I want to make the reader think my character is whimpy, I give them a scene where they hide from a fight or make others fight their battles. Then a show that same characteristic in another scene and the impression is set. Then maybe I break that impression, make the character brave in some other setting. No one can always be one thing, right? I actually think Fred enjoys being pet, maybe he just doesn't enjoy the being picked up part? Who knows. So, you see, actions don't give the whole story but they can be combined with other things to make great dynamic characters.

            Ever read a book where a character is described as funny or charismatic but you never really get that sense, it's only the thoughts of the other person telling you they are this way. (*Cough* Edward is interesting*Cough*) It's annoying, frustrating and just rings false. It seems like a cop-out. The author doesn't wanna do the work to make the characters, they just want to tell you how you should think of the characters.

            In conclusion, Fred and Albert have taught me that sometimes ducking from a reaching hand is more telling of your skittishness than me telling others:
Me: "Oh, Fred isn't that friendly."
Others (Everytime): Grabs him anyway. "Sh*t he bite me!"
Me: Shrug to Other. Smile to Fred. Pat on head.

Can't hide in a house with no roof!