The ethics of characterization

In 1986, I learned a valuable lesson on character development I will never forget, and obviously never do it again.  I was working at Burger King and having a conversation with a co-worker about writing a soap opera about the restaurant.  We were laughing at some of the ideas we came up with when I thought how about a murder mystery?  Two days later I had the first page of “Would you like fries with that?”

I promised that I would put up one page per week for everyone to see.  The first week, everyone wanted to know who stuck the victim in the fry vat.  By the end of the second week everyone was still enjoying it, but the characters seemed vaguely familiar.  By the third week, everyone had figured out that they were the characters in the story, and I changed nothing, except their names.  I didn’t portray them in any libelous way; I just wrote what was.  The funny thing was, the only person who didn’t see any resemblance was the person in the vat.

After hearing their complaints and suggestions, I decided to stop, it was just for fun.  Of course after I stopped, everyone wanted to find out what happened next.

As writers, a lot of the characters we use are loosely based on real people.  We add some traits, take some away, and we even mix them.  As the Burger King incident taught me, you must never use a person as is when you write fiction.  This is not to say that you can’t use them at all, just pick and choose what your character will need.

The question I was left with was “how do I use the people I know, the people I read about, or see on TV and movies, without copying them exactly?”

I read a book on characterization that held my answer.  It said, take a bunch of 3×5 cards and on each one, write one character trait.  When you finish writing all the traits of one person, you will categorize them into three groups: Physical, personality, and quirks/habits.

In the physical you will of course have things like hair, eyes, scars, deformities, anything that makes up the physical appearance.

Under personality, you have things like uptight, stressed, calm, cheerful, whatever makes up their natural disposition.

Quirks/habits are things like biting the nails, sucking on lollipops when nervous, not talking when they’re angry.  This category is for anything that makes a person truly unique.

Once you have finished this, you can file them. Then you go out and get traits from elsewhere.  The gathering of traits is ongoing, and you have millions of sources.  These days you have a computer to do the filing for you, but you still need to carry a notepad to record what you see, then you can transfer it later.

Once you have these traits written down, and filed, you will have an endless supply of traits to create your character. And the best part is you will never run the risk of copying someone who might be offended by what you write.

Challenge:  Today’s challenge is a writing prompt.  Take a trait from each of the categories, and write a description of a character with all three traits.


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