I was reminded in class the other day of a writing exercise that I call Building Characters. The idea came to me from a chapter in a student’s memoir, about a bus trip her family took in Great Britain and Western Europe in the early 1960s. The group was an intriguing collection of characters—starting with the tour guide, the wonderfully named Mr. Pinchback—and it occurred to me that students could use a grouping like this as an ongoing challenge to work on building characters.
Plot and characters are intertwined. To put it simply, plot is comprised of events. Different characters react differently to the same event, so if you want to know who your characters are, apply some pressure and see what they do.
So, on our imaginary bus tour, how do our various tourists react when the bus breaks down? How does Mr. Pinchback handle it? Does the character who seems most likely to take charge in a crisis, based on his appearance and superficial behavior, have a meltdown? Or does he step up and reveal an unexpected sense of humor? Does having to wait in the cold and rain reveal the fractures in a twenty-five-year marriage? Fractures that perhaps you, the writer, suspected were there but couldn’t identify.
Your characters can talk about each other too. Always great fun. In his book Master Class in Fiction Writing, Adam Sexton writes: “The conflicts and contradictions between the information provided about a character by different sources can provide the most illuminating and fascinating characterization of all.” So, who finds out that one tourist’s credit card keeps being rejected and who do they tell? Is one of the group of five elderly women suffering from early onset dementia or is she an alcoholic? What secrets does the eavesdropping twelve-year-old learn about … well, everyone?
As I said, I suggest this as an exercise in learning how to build your characters, not as the start of a short story or a novel. Although if it develops that way for you, go with it. Nor does it have to be a bus tour. My point is to use a particular setting and a small group of people. Sort of like an Agatha Christie mystery. Maybe it’s a doctor’s waiting room. Maybe it’s a small business with a handful of employees. A student recently brought in a story that worked well—a Zoom class of strangers who most definitely acted in surprising ways when the unexpected happened. And that’s just what you want when you’re building characters.