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Bob Nailor

Sailing The 7 C's - Lesson 3 of 7

The third sea to chart is CHARACTER. This one has varying degrees of depth, color and action. Just like the waves of the ocean, the characters must come alive inside the reader's mind. If you have what I call an assembly line character (ALC), you have nothing. An ALC is just a cardboard silhouette with no motivation or depth, the stereotypical person. Like the alkaline residue when salt dries on metal, if touched, it will dissipate in the wind, leaving nothing. If your character is scrutinized, you don't want it to crumble like powder.

So visualize a female, green alien with a floppy topknot on top of a grape-shaped head, one eye, lots of attitude, has two fingers and a thumb. She is wearing a red top with a one-eyed yellow happy face on it. She is also singing Donna Summers’ disco hit “I Will Survive”.

Is This What You Saw? ~ mpeg version
Is This What You Saw? ~ wmv version

To explain further, what do you think of when you read the word "barbarian" or "sailor" in some text. For the first it would probably be a very rough, heavily muscled brute with black, mussed hair, probably wearing a suitable amount of fur and lugging about a club or at least one knife and/or sword. Sailor? He is probably wearing a white or blue bell bottomed uniform with a blousy shirt and a white cap. He’s got a tattoo, swaggers, drinks, smokes and has at least one young maiden in arm. Your character "can" be what everyone thinks is stereotypical but you must make at least some attempt to discern him/her from the rest of the crowd. This can be done by using emotions, unique characteristics or situation.

In "Sea of Regret" I have a sailor but I have taken him out of his normal surroundings. He is now a victim of his own occupation and is not in control of any seagoing vehicle; instead he is adrift.

Seaman Second Class Hanson straddled his floating island of debris.

I give more and more details about the character as the story unfolds rather than droning on about physical features and boring descriptions of clothes. Many times the reader's imagination will fill in details or place themselves into the story.

He wanted to marry her but just like other young men of the village, he had no money. Hanson left the village the morning of Shara Ki's marriage; he couldn't stand to watch his beloved in the arms of another. The seaport of Tileth beckoned to him and he answered the call. Four years later he had proved himself a worthy sailor and been promoted many times.

In just a few short sentences you have learned that the lead character is probably about 25 years of age and a village raised lad of poverty. Lovelorn, he departs for a sea city, becomes a sailor and seems to be a very responsible and capable person. More and more details about Hanson are revealed as the story progresses.

In a novel, details would be much more vivid, embracing the reader's mind to see exactly what the writer has envisioned. In this case, Hanson would have had many more characteristics embellished, perhaps to such a degree that you could have selected him from a group of strangers on the street. In a short story, that skill is not necessarily needed.

Sometimes, certain characteristics are so imprinted on the mind that they stay with you for quite some time. Consider these:

  1. Forehead scar, 1/2 muggle, red hair (3 separate people)
  2. Loin cloth, jungle yell, athletic fighting with wild animals
  3. Male French speaking Belgium detective with a stiff, military moustache
  4. Bow and arrow, a forest dweller with a band of merry men
  5. Hester Prynne (reverse, this is the character, tell me the title)
  6. Gingerbread house, mean witch, brother and sister
  7. White fur, pocket watch, a tunnel, and being very, very late
  1. Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley (J. K. Rowling)
  2. Tarzan (Edgar Rice Burroughs)
  3. Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)
  4. Robin Hood (based on legends)
  5. The Scarlet Letter [The red letter 'A'] (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
  6. Hansel and Gretel (as recorded by The Brothers Grimm)
  7. The White Rabbit [Alice in Wonderland] (Lewis Carroll)

Exactly what characteristics DO you list?
From a short story I wrote:

Leo sat there in the partially flooded room of the abandoned ship, his muscular and hairy legs dangling in the water. He hunched over and saw his reflection smiling back: dark, curly hair; midnight blue eyes and a well chiseled Italian face under a slightly unshaven beard. The scar running from mid-forehead to left eyebrow was barely visible in the water's reflection. Dimples deepened as he smiled. Leo shook his head as he noticed the red plaid bathing trunks he'd been forced to buy for this excursion to the ship but still felt his toned and tanned muscles could cover for the nerdy image they projected.

You build your character through:

Get inside your character… Be your character…

THEN - play the WHAT IF game… You'll be surprised by what you discover when you let your imagination free and allow your character to discover him/herself.

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