For me, the answer can be found in one of my favourite autobiographies, Khushwant Singh’s story, ‘Truth, Love and a Little Malice’. In the inside cover of this book, it is stated that he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974 by the President of India. He returned this award in 1984 to protest against the Union Government’s siege of the Golden Temple, Amritsar. I knew immediately that I wanted very much to read his story. What manner of courage did this man have to return a national award? What was his background and who provided him with such a sense of identity and pride that he was willing to do this?
An Accessible World
The world already knew these men as great people. What made both the stories more accessible was that, through their words, I got to see their humanity, insecurities, joys, and sadness. Also, they narrated major historical events and their interaction with people from all over the world in an interesting way. This was because they understood how to effectively describe each person they came into contact with. They brought all these people to life with a detailed analysis of these people’s character traits and so on.
Similarly, to create compelling characters, try using a ‘police photo-fit’ approach. First, prepare a list that contains basic information about each character. Let’s say your name is Gina and you want to write about your step-son, Jason. He was born in 2002 and he looks very much like his father did when he was young. This is how you would weave the information into the text: ‘Gina smiled. Jason seemed so awkward – at 14, his clothes were too big for his tall frame; his large hands flapped about and even his smile was lop-sided. He reminded her of a scarecrow.’
What if they get angry with me?
Sometimes, writers are so worried they’ll offend someone they write about.
- What if that person is offended?
- What if they recognise themselves?
- What if they sue me?
- What if they hate me for life?
Answering such questions is often a balancing act.
On the one hand, you should not write with the intention to offend someone else. You write because you have a story to tell. If you don’t tell this story, life will not be complete in some way. It’s your story and you must own it. That should be your starting point.
On the other hand, you must remember this: what have you got to lose by telling your truth? If you were treated badly or unfairly in your workplace, what more can they expect of you? If you’re careful about how you craft the characters in your story, even if they’re based on real people, they will become so unrecognisable in the text that you are unlikely to be sued.
Whenever I’ve crafted characters based on others, they can’t recognise themselves even when they read the story. It’s probably because they’re so self-centred. With their ‘I’m always right’ attitude, they can’t see the flaws in their behaviour. You may manage this so well you may unexpectedly create characters that will become icons for years to come.
- Kress, Nancy. Dynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities That Keep Readers Captivated. Writers Digest Books; First Edition edition (July 15, 1998)
Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time
The character that Sara chose to work on was her friend and mentor, Sekhar. Here’s the information she gathered about him:- His full name is Shekar Menon. He is a Malayalee and an investment banker. He belongs to the upper middle class bracket, he is fair, has thick, curly hair and black eyes. A techie, he has all the latest apps on his phone and listens to many forms of music. He takes his responsibilities as a father (to one son and one daughter) and wife very seriously. Highly disciplined, he has a fixed timetable that he sticks to no matter what. He is always on time. His one weakness is food; he loves to eat, but has recently become a vegetarian.
Here is a basic template of some of the elements that go into helping you create unforgettable characters:
- General information – this will include full name, nickname, race, occupation and social class.
- Physical appearance – this will include age, hair colour, eyes and so on.
- Favourites – this will include the character’s favourite music, books, expressions and hobbies.
- Personality – describe the character’s personality. Is he cautious? Is he temperamental? Background – what is the character’s background?
- Relationships – describe the character’s relationship with his family and friends.
- Traits – describe the character’s traits. For instance, is he an optimist or pessimist?
- Problems – what problems does this character face?
Aneeta Sundararaj tells the stories of a diverse group of people from cardiologists and Ayurveda practitioners to independent financial advisors. ‘Two Snakes Whistling at the Same Time’ is included in a collection of stories that she is working on. Subscribe to the free newsletter on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’ (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).