Tilling and Sowing the Acre of Characterization
We are all main characters in our own stories, even if we sometimes wonder why it feels like we’re always getting second billing. And because we’re living out on own stories, sometimes it can be difficult to suspend our consciousness – or self consciousness – in order to craft a believable character.
Of course, it’s a truth universally acknowledged (to borrow from Miss Austen) that the best place to start is at the beginning. As Anne Lamott explains in her chapter about characterization in Bird by Bird, “every single one of us at birth is given an emotional acre all our own….and as long as you don’t hurt anyone, you really get to do with your acre whatever you please.”
So what does your emotional acre look like? Is it an organic farm full of happy farm animals and a big red barn? Is it one of those Japanese zen gardens full of rocks and sand? Perhaps you’ve got succulents in every corner, or the air is thick with the unrestrained lavender and rosemary you let run rampant across your emotional field. Then again, maybe you’re acre looks more like a garbage dump – with empty containers and rusted parts in a hodgepodge of excess. Or perhaps your acre is just a ramshackle path through a variety of different scenes – a wooded glen, a strip mall parking lot, a cathedral at dusk…the empty stacks of a university library.
In order to achieve the creation of a real and relatable character, the first step is to anchor them to their world. One way to do this is to imaging their emotional acre.
“By the same token, each of your characters has an emotional acre that they tend, or don’t tend, in certain specific ways.” explains Lamott. “One of the things you want to discover as you start out is what each person’s acre looks like.”
Questions to ask about your character:
- What do they look like?
- What first impression do they make?
- What do they care most about?
- What do they want more than anything else in the world?
- How do they smell?
- How would they describe their current circumstances?
- Which “now” do your characters dwell in?
- Do they teach their children by example?
- Do they lie? To themselves or others?
Don’t feel discouraged if at first your characters seem to act and think just like you.
“You are going to love some of your characters, because they are some facet of you,” predicts Lamott, “and you are going to hate some of your characters for the same reason.”
“A man I know once said to me, ‘The evidence is in, and you are the verdict,” she continues. “This will be true for each of your characters. The evidence will be in, and each of them will be his or her own verdict.”
“Just don’t pretend to know more about your characters than they do,” she warns “because you don’t . Stay open to them. It’s team time and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s as simple as that.”
Here’s a character portrait created on the fly. I asked some of Lamott’s questions, and posed some of my own. She’s both like me and not like me….and I’m curious what’ll happen next and what she’ll decide to do.
And She Said “Yes”…
At a table under the window along the wall by the front door, sits a couple having coffee. Actually, upon closer inspection it become clear that only the woman has a mug in front of her. Minutes before her companion’s arrival, she’d been killing time sipping a latte and leafing through the free weeklies that sit in a pile under the coffee shop’s bulletin board.
She’s in her thirties, but her chubby cheeks and fair complexion help her pass for 20something. Sometimes. Particularly when she’s not wearing makeup. There’s no denying that she’s on the chubby side – a size 16 easily which, for southern California, makes her pretty much morbidly obese. It doesn’t help that she’s short (under 5’2) and curvy…although that last bit makes her more zaftig than portly.
One leg of her light blue pants is folded under the knee of the other; a long, creamy sweater pools I her lap and does an okay job of hiding her belly – the least favorite part of her anatomy. Her sandy blonde hair – in a cut and style that’s actually quite pretty – is shiny and long, floating past her shoulders. She’s got a nice, healthy complexion – rosy cheeks and bright eyes.
In a contrast that would be comical if their countenances weren’t so serious, her companion is tall and thin. He probably says he’s in his forties, but early 50s is closer to the truth. He’s wearing a dark navy suit, and wire rimmed glasses. His peppered hair is thinning on top, and although his over style is nothing the least bit shabby, one look tells you he’s more Ross than Nordstrom.
She’s talking about her ex husband. They divorced three years, and now he has a big fancy house, a younger wife and is apparently living the high life in the Pacific Northwest. The tone of her voice is high, betraying how nervous she is and how anxious to make a good first impression.
As she talks about ex husband, he begins to touch her – ostensibly to offer “comfort”, even though she’s really not all that upset, and is using the story to try and paint a more favorable picture of her life –perhaps even use it as an excuse for the extra weight she carries, both physically and psychically.
She pauses to take a sip of her now cold coffee, and he takes over the conversation with confidence and determination. He begins to regale her with the ins and outs of their town – treating her as a new arrival although there’s nothing to indicate that she hasn’t grown up just down the street – narrating all the important people he knows, all the events he’s attended, all the ways in which he’s the king of his little kingdom.
He leans back and appraises her and his agenda is suddenly so clear, there’s almost an audible click as the plan falls into place. He wants to fuck this girl. He’s pegged her as vulnerable, a little needy, definitely craving attention and positive reinforcement.
He can tell she’s thankful for his attention, and now he starts to prop her up, telling her in a stage whisper how vivacious she is…. how beautiful…and young…and fresh…all the while touching her, pulling her towards him with his lowered voice and lingering hands.
She’s so happy. The date had progressed to the next level. She knows he’s trying to manipulate her right into bed, but she’s will go along with it because she needs the validation, needs to feel wanted, and is probably horny herself.
With a studied nonchalance, he announces that it’s time for a nice glass of wine. Would she like to join him?
Her immediate, peppy, needy reply: “Yes.”