Monday, June 27, 2011

Characterization (and 600 Otter Pops and counting)

I've been studying up on how to improve characterization in novels. In a book by Dwight Swain (a much loved writing teacher), I found a really great tip.
Creating Characters: How to Build Story People
He said that if you want your character to come to life you need to imbue him/her with emotion, emotion strong enough to be felt by the reader. I'm not great at this--I tend to keep things in the character's head, rather than letting feelings get visceral--so I got excited when he suggested a way to do this. Here's what he said:

Mine your memory banks to a time when you felt an emotion similar to the one your character is feeling. It doesn't have to be the same circumstance, of course, just the same emotion: lust, greed, hatred, fear, humiliation, joy.

Just remember a time when you felt that emotion. Get down into it, relive it in your mind. His example was to think of a time when you were mad enough at someone you wanted to kill them. Once you're back there mentally, pull out your pen and write down all the feelings you have--the gut feelings, the setting of the jaw, the sweating of the palms, the qivering of the knee, the twitching of the eye, raised pulse, rapid breathing throught the nose--all of it. Get it down on paper.

Then you can use the description of that emotion and apply it to the character and situation you're writing about.

I took what he said and made a list of emotional powerhouse moments in my life, and then examined what categories of emotion they fell under (geez, there were quite a larrrrrrge number of moments that fit under the heading "embarrassment." I wonder why.) Then I started writing them out, putting those moments onto paper. It was interesting (and a little awful) to relive them, but now I've got this great database to turn to for future reference.

I'm hoping it will improve my writing, and help the reader to connect better with the characters I'm trying to express in my work.

Meanwhile, the main feeling I have this week is HEAT. It was 121 degrees in my car when I got into it this afternoon, after I burned my little fingers on the door handle. This is why we just finished our SIXTH box of (100 count) Otter Pops of the summer. Mind you, we're only four weeks in. I can see another 10-12 boxes in our future if we're going to survive.

But come on, how bad can an Otter Pop be? They're only 25 calories. They're fruity (and the ones from Costco even have real fruit juice in them) and they refresh, and they're most of all COLD. In this heat, we need it. The whole state is on fire, why not have an Otter Pop to fight back?

I left on an errand the other day and the kids asked, "How many Otter Pops can we have?" I actually heard myself answer, "Only ten."

Little Orphan Orange, Alexander the Grape, Louie Blue Raspberry, Sir Isaac Lime, Strawberry Short Kook, Poncho Punch.

Ahhhhh. I'll have five of each.


  1. You're right! Remembering the times I wanted to kill someone really does make it easy to describe: the satisfying weight of the pistol in my outstretched hand, the mounting pressure against my index finger on the trigger, the sneer on my lips, the sudden widening of their eyes...I mean, that's how it probably WOULD HAVE been if that ACTUALLY happened!

  2. I love this! Thanks for telling us about this book, I am so going to do this.

    And feelin your pain down here in southern az. I dug out an otter pop from the back of the freezer this weekend. I haven't bought otter pops in about four years, so it was questionable, I was desperate, and it was oh-so-good.

  3. Stephany Mae RobinsonJune 27, 2011 at 11:21 PM

    I'm not sure if I've ever really wanted to kill someone, but I definitely wanted to see them in some kind of dire pain. Most of the time, this kind of pain isn't even physical. Death is too good for my enemies. I love the tie in w/ Otter Pops!


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