A Writer’s Notebook: Character details

This story I’m writing about the character named Ford is ballooning, but in the best way–each week I find new ways to build it, expand it, let it breathe.

But more on that below.  Right now, five quick questions to help flesh out the character of Ford:

a) What are the character’s physical attributes, from head to toe?

Ford is tall, burly, wide-shouldered and narrow-hipped.  He keeps his ashy blond hair in a buzz so short it sometimes looks as though he’s bald, just a heavy five-o’clock shadow on his head.  (He cites the Roman military as the inspiration for his cut–“Makes it harder for guys to grab your hair in a fight or out on the field,” though it occurs to me that it also makes it harder for a girl to grab his hair when attacked.)  You’d expect a former football star turned ex-con to have a hard face, a solid jaw with pronounced muscles that jump when he’s agitated, but this isn’t the case with Ford.  At 28, his face is still boyishly round, outlined in shadowy sideburn stubble that descends to his jaw.  He does have piercing eyes, though, narrow eyes under low-hanging brows that pinch in at the center so he always looks like he’s studying you.

He has two visible recent scars, one on his right shoulder and one on his left forearm.  The one on his shoulder is a shiv-wound from prison.  The one on his arm is a deep bite mark, two jagged crescents facing each other.  He claims he got this, too, in prison, but the bite looks small.

He wears denim work shirts or plain t-shirts, and tight jeans.  He prefers heavy workboots, especially when mowing lawns or scavenging trash.  He mostly stands with one leg cocked and his hips at a tilt, a thumb in one pocket, like he’s posing for a cigarette ad.

b) What relationships are important to your character? Why?

Ford maintains no relationships anymore.  His parents moved away from Boerne after his conviction, and he has not spoken to his one younger brother in several years.  But Ford was determined to move back to the town he grew up in, where everyone avoids him and he avoids everyone.

c) What does your character do? For a job? For fun?

Ford mows lawns and, in his spare time, scavenges the roadside trash for salvageable discards, old washers or refrigerators, broken furniture he can repair, anything he might be able to fix and/or sell somewhere down the line.  For fun, he works in his backyard model of Boerne, arranging the lives and narratives he’s concocted there.

d) What is your character most afraid of?

Women.  He worries they make him weak.

e) What does your character want?

To force the entire town to admit they were wrong about him–no matter what it takes.

This past Monday, I linked up via video chat with the teen writing workshop I founded back in Platteville, Wisconsin, now led by Ryan Werner.  Some of the writers in that group were there with me from the beginning, and one of them–talented young author Stephanie–invited me to join the group from across the ocean.  Alas, the video link-up didn’t cooperate as well as we’d have liked, but because I was still connected on chat, I was able to participate in the writing exercises they did that day.

This was one of those exercises, part of a series the teen writers did in their workshop.  And because I’m in the middle of this story about Ford, it seemed a perfect opportunity to work more on his character.

Ryan might have to correct me on this–some of the details got lost in the garbled video feed–but I believe these questions come from the oft-used exercise book What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers.  If it doesn’t you can certainly find similar lists of questions in other writing books (I know there are some good lists in Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Building Fiction, for example).  And I had loads more culled from other sources over the year–a whole MS Word file devoted to them, actually, which I might break out for a future Writer’s Notebook.  But if you’re playing along and want to delve into a character a bit, these five questions are a great starting place.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

2 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: Character details

  1. It’s actually from the book Now Write! (http://www.amazon.com/Now-Write-Fiction-Exercises-Teachers/dp/1585425222), though What If? is a great book as well. The exercise was suggested by Crystal Wilkinson and is called “Birth of a Story In An Hour or Less.” This is actually the third step of the exercise.

    Here’s a simplified version of the entire exercise:

    Step 1) Write a full conversation over the course of two pages of dialogue. Use only tags like “he said” or “she said” if necessary.

    Step 2) Make lists of what these two characters are sensing around them (see, hear, feel, smell, taste). List their sensory details.

    Step 3) Pick one of your characters and answer these five questions about him/her

    a) What are the character’s physical attributes, from head to toe?
    b) What relationships are important to your character? Why?
    c) What does your character do? For a job? For fun?
    d) What is your character most afraid of?
    e) What does your character want?

    Step 4) Write three scenes.

    Scene 1) Imagine a time your character’s(s’) life before the conversation you wrote. This could be immediately before the conversation happened or any time back to childhood. But it must be before the conversation. Try to include all you know about these characters so far. In thinking about their past even what may have contributed to the problem at hand at the time of your story’s invention.

    Scene 2) Write a scene that takes place during the conversation. Rely heavily on your dialogue from the first step of the exercise. What are your character’s mannerisms? Are they interrupted at all? If so, by what or whom? Do they have accents? Are they thinking about something other than what they are saying?

    Scene 3) Write a scene that takes place immediately after the conversation. One of two conclusions must be came to. a) the problem that arose or was talked about in the conversation is solved. b) the problem is not solved, but the character begins or at least tries to begin accepting that it will never be solved.

    This is a great exercise. The kids had fun–though they did complain a bit once we got to the actual scene writing (“This isn’t as fun!”). It’s a great way to break away from creating within the story and do all the making-stuff-up stuff in parts before you go and write the actual story. This exercise is like doing your homework and making the writing of the story the test. Except you can retake the test as many times as you want. And you can get that test rejected by dozens of publishers around the world as many times as you want.

    I need a drink.

  2. I feel special. =) Thanks, Sam! We’ll have to work on this chat thing. Maybe next year. Or, better yet, we could see you in person! Plan your vacation ahead.

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