Getting To Know Your Characters (Part 2)

by Gary A. Braunbeck

In Part 1 we discussed an approach to characterization that was based on nuance — specifically, visual nuance. I used an an example how much you can tell about a character from the way he or she eats a bowl of cereal. This time, as promised, we’re going to take a look at how you can get to know a character from the way he or she puts on or takes off a coat.

I know this may seem silly on the surface, but it works for me. Nearly every story I have written has begun with an image of the central character doing something mundane, but it’s the manner in which this mundane task in done that instantly tells me a great deal about them.

Just as a mental exercise, try this: the next you go out to a club, movie, party, or restaurant, over the course of the evening choose five people at random and watch how they both remove and put on their coats. Does this person treat their coat with care, removing it slowly, one arm at a time, and then drape it carefully over the back of their chair (making sure that the lower part doesn’t touch the floor), or do they just all but let it drop off of them, and then thoughtlessly sling it over the back of a chair without a second glance, even though a full one-third of it is now spread out on the floor?

As far as putting the coat back on, watch this, as well. Do they exercise care when they do this (again, one arm at a time, slowly), taking time to smooth it out a bit once it’s on their body, or do they make a bit of a show out of it, swirling it around their shoulders like Zorro’s cape and then jamming their arms into the sleeves with such wide flourish there’s a good chance they could take out someone’s eye should that other person be standing too close?

This can tell you a lot about your character, albeit in broad strokes, but that’s where characterizaton starts. The character who takes care of their coat, who is careful to remove it and hang it off the back of the chair so no part of it touches the floor (and who also exercises quiet care when putting it back on) reveals several things by these actions: this coat is something that has some meaning for them — it may have been a gift from a family member who is no longer alive (it may even have belonged to that family member, it’s your call); it may have been something for which they had to save money every month in order to purchase because they don’t have a lot of disposable income; it may be that this coat is one of the few things they feel they look good in; or it may be that this is the only coat they own. The possibilities are endless.

But here is the one thing that you’ll know immediately: this is, in all probability, a shy person, one who wishes to blend in as much as possible so as not to draw attention to him- or herself. This is a person who will be all to happy to join in the conversation, but will rarely begin one of their own volition.

Whereas the other person — the one who just tosses the coat down without a second thought and then makes a bit of a show when putting it back on — this person is not only an extrovert, but also quite probably someone who, though he or she may have a job, has never really known what it’s ike to work in order to possess the basics (like said coat). The coat may have been a gift from a parent (who is still probably alive, and thus able to provide them with a new coat when this one becomes trashed by having half of it draped across the floor so many times); it may be just one of several coats they own, so what the hell do they care?; or it may be that — like our other person — this is the only coat they own, but because they need to foster this devil-may-care persona among their friends, they treat it with indifference … until, of coursde, it’s time to leave, and putting it back on allows them to be showy, thus making sure they remain the center of attention.

Like I said, these are broad-stroke examples, but it’s a way to begin. Other factors must be called into consideration in order to enrich this scenario; the age and sex of the character in question; the kind of coat he or she is wearing (expensive, something off the rack at Target, something tailored specifically for them, etc.); the circumstances under which he or she is wearing the coat. (I imagine that our first character would exercise the same kind of deliberate care with their coat whether he or she were with a group of people or eating alone — and wouldn’t it be interesting if our second character, when alone, treated their coat with the same care and didn’t make a show of putting it back on? It’s fun how this works, isn’t it?)

Now take it a step further: imagine what’s in the pockets of each character’s coat. Going with the original conceit that our first character is a shy person who, for the sake or argument, was given the coat as a gift by a deceased parent (perhaps the last gift this person ever received from said parent), they’re not likely to stick a used candy bar wrapper in one of the pockets because they couldn’t immediately find a trash can after polishing off … what? (Ask yourself that: what kind of a candy bar would this person prefer, or would they like candy at all? Hmmmmm ….) I imagine that our shy perswon would keep a pair of gloves in the pockets (for when the outside tmperature gets cold) and perhaps their car keys, but little else. Simple and uncluttered.

Whereas our second character would have receipts, loose change, car keys, two or three wadded one-dollar bills they’ve forgotten are even in there, half a dozen phone numbers scribbled on slips of paper, and a half-eaten candy bar from six months ago that has begun to grow a fungus that is starting to breathe and develop a rudimentary language.

I could go on, but I think you probably got the point of this at least three paragraphs ago.

Keeping in mind what I’ve discussed, allow me to present you with someone:

Female. Mid-30s. Her coat is wool, with a removable lining. It’s tan. It’s in very good condition and, in fact, might be thought brand-new until you get close enough to see that it’s at least ten years out of style. She removes it carefully after entering the restaurant (she’s alone) and instead of draping it over the back of her own chair, places it lengthwise across the other chair at the table, so that the collar is just hanging a little over the back of the chair, and the bottom of the coat hangs a little ways past the seat of the chair, nowhere near touching the floor. She’s wearing a wedding ring, but it’s on the ring finger of her right hand. She takes her cloth napkin and spreads it across her lap, then smoothes it out. She picks up the menu, takes a small sip from her water glass, and begins reading. If you watch closely, you can see that her hands are trembling slightly.

What’s her story? Write about her character in a single paragraph.

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