Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Character Clues

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         I’ve never really thought about it until now, but my friends are very, very specific whenever we set times to meet.

I’ll arrange to pick up a friend for lunch or to volunteer at our kids’ school. “Why don’t you come by at 9:35?” they’ll suggest. Or, “Elizabeth, I’ll be ready at 11:50.”

A friend pointed this out recently, “You know no one else gets precise instructions like that.” I didn’t understand. She said, “No one else is told the exact minute to meet. Most people will say something on the hour or the half-hour. Maybe on the quarter hour. The only reason people tell you that is because you’ll be there at exactly that time. You’re never early or late. If you were late, I’d call the cops because I’d know something horrible had happened to you.”

So, if I were a character (and I’m wondering now if maybe I am), a reader could possibly make some assumptions about me. Some might be right and some might be wrong.

Someone might conclude that I’m a little Type A. They might conclude that I keep an eye on the clock. Maybe they’d just conclude that I’m punctual (although apparently I take it a little too far.)

Of course I’m all about clues, since I’m a mystery writer. The fun thing about character clues is that the reader gets to figure things out for themselves. Editors love showing—and it’s a great way to show.

Frequently, when I think about character clues, I’m using clues that are physical pointers. In other words, I’d have something like a character who opens his car door and a bunch of papers and wrappers fall out. Easy to make assumptions about him, right?

But if I bring in another character, I can show that character’s demeanor when dealing with the protagonist—and add dialogue clues to hint at character traits and the characters’ relationship with each other .

Maybe you have a character that you want to represent as someone who talks too much. This could easily be expressed by interruptions from a second character or their signs of impatience. Or of them putting off a phone call with the character. Much better than pages and pages of chatty dialogue to prove the point.

Since I’m a mystery writer, I might also be interested in planting the wrong impression of a character. I might want to mislead the reader. (Other novelists might want to do the same thing, for different reasons.) Maybe the character is unnaturally chatty because they’re nervous. Maybe the second character is just an impatient person who interrupts—maybe they’re not making a point about the character’s loquaciousness at all.

How do you handle character clues?