A fiction writer spends an excessive amount of time painting pictures on the blank page. In their tool-kits are nouns, pronouns, and action verbs, hopefully limited adverbs, to be verbs, and other extraneous fillers that clutter the page and drown the reader in a sea of passive verbs.
We also spend a scary number of hours in the pages of a thesaurus hunting down the perfect word for the scene, or the exact word a character would use in a heated exchange. Mostly we are looking for a word that promises to linger in the subconscious of the reader after their eyes have breezed over it. It shouts, speaks volumes, and if the situation warrants, it whispers sweet nothings. After all red is nothing quite like crimson, is it?
And when it comes to character development, we labor to create memorable heroines and heroes that will haunt the reader long after the last page is turned and the book returns to the shelf. It’s one of the secrets in crafting a fabulous story. What stands out in your mind when someone mentions Gone with the Wind? Is it Tara, or Scarlet and Rhett?
But what is it about the character that lingers? Is it their body shape? Is their habit of dress or their facial expressions? Do they have a nervous tic? Are they quirky, powerful, merciless, OCDC, manic, self-unaware, introspective, self-depreciating, empathetic, goody two-shoes. Is the character flawless to the point of boredom? Even Atticus Fitch had a flaw or two. It’s not their beauty we remember, it’s their humanness, which we relate to and hold on to decades after reading the book. What makes a character memorable can drive a writer to the brink of emptying the twelve-cup coffee pot or eating a party size bag of M&M’s in a single session if she/he can’t find the tell of a person.
I wondered as only a writer does who has had her third cup of coffee, how is this any different from what makes a person, you or me for instance, memorable in another’s eyes. If Dylan Tomas were talking about his Caitlin, he might say she was a true rebel who didn’t give a damn about what anybody thought and did exactly as she pleased without consideration. If that’s all you know about Caitlin Tomas, it’s sufficient information for you to fill in the missing details about the type of person she was without Dylan having to paint a portrait.
But let’s get back to our own self-portraits and what would make the real you memorable. If Margaret Mitchell or Harper Lee were writing a second novel and decided to cast you as the lead, what would your tell be? For a moment or two, consider yourself in glorious color, both the light and dark hues. How would an author describe you? Honestly, what would the good, the bad, and the not so pretty details of your persona be?
Are you still breathing?
It’s one thing to say, “I’m 5’6’’, my eyes are the color of dark chocolate, and I wear my inky colored hair long hair with streaks of aubergine. Good or bad, my hips are perfect for holding babies, and I have the sort of laugh that draws unwelcome attention—like glares and a strategically tossed handful of popcorn—in a dark movie theater. I have a nasty habit of asking inappropriate questions at the wrong time, and can fall truly, madly, and deeply in love, with a sentence. That’s the easy part. Now trying looking inside of yourself for the grit of who you are and what is that makes you real. Once you’ve arrived the destination of you, you’re exactly where the writer is when she/he is looking for traits inside of herself or others, to exploit on the pages of the story being written.
What would your self-portrait look like if you were to paint a picture with your words? Just kidding. What’s your tell?
Self-portraits provided by Caitlin Elisabeth Granger, aspiring photographer, daughter of Brenda, and student of the world.