Autumn is my favorite season. Fat pumpkins sit on the front steps of the neighborhood houses. Farms in my rural community open their gates to the public, welcoming them with horse or tractor-drawn hay rides, pumpkin patches, corn mazes, face painting, and stands with tummy-tempting, hot, spiced, apple cider and applesauce doughnuts. This outing is the highlight of October for my family. (That, and the chocolate chip pumpkin bread we bake together.)
And what has this got to do with writing?
This year at the farm we visit, I decided to conduct an experiment in altering one’s personality.
As writers, this is exactly what we do when we create a character.
My unsuspecting volunteer… none other than my daughter.
The three of us wandered around the farm, petting goats, jumping in piles of corn, climbing enormous, rubber spider webs, and then, as the wind pulled up, and the sky darkened… we entered the seven acre corn maze. (Actually, it was a warm and sunny day, but didn’t that make it more seasonally dramatic?)
Families were charging around the rows, walking into dead ends, retracing their steps, laughing and asking everyone they passed if they knew their way out. (We got there early enough to make sure we’d have plenty of daylight to get ourselves ‘un lost.’) As a large group was following us, I stopped and asked my daughter, who is nine, to pretend she was a cat.
“Go ahead, honey,” I said, “meow, paw at the air, pounce on something.”
She looked at me with that you-have-got-to-be-from-another-planet look and started walking away from me a little faster.
“Oh, come on,” I coaxed.
This is where the experiment began… “Well!” I said, “Would you look at the strange thing I found in my purse?”
That got her attention. She peered from behind the dried corn leaves, eyes widening as she saw the paper, cat mask I pulled from my purse.
“Wow! You brought that for me?”
She put the mask on and instantly lost her shyness. She couldn’t care less what the families around her thought or said. Behind that mask she could be anyone. And at that moment, she transformed into an amazing cat. She hissed, she pawed the air, she pounced, and she couldn’t stop posing for the camera.
Isn’t this, to some degree, what we do when creating characters? Aren’t we giving them masks to try on as we write and rewrite their personalities?
Here’s a character making example:
We give our character a name.
We give them an appearance.
We add some quirks or habits.
We sometimes add a phrase or comment the character says.
We give them history/background info.
We give them a family.
Eventually, we have created a character we can move through the pages of our novel.
But what happens when a personality trait doesn’t mesh with a twist in our plot?
I’ve created a fairly confident character. He’s accustomed to winning. A big annual competition is coming up at work, and he’s already won five years in a row. When the scene comes up, will my reader perch on the edge of their recliner with streams of sweat streaming from their brow, wondering, hoping (knowing) he’ll win. Nope.
We switch gears and change our gallant hero to the underdog. He’s quiet, a tad on the shy side. This poor guy has been teased by his older brothers since he could talk. He’s never had enough money to buy any stylish clothes. Girls don’t notice him. He always gives his best, but always falls short of winning. This likable guy needs this win if only to give him a taste of success.
So, we find that changing the personality of one of our characters is similar to trying on different masks. Except as writers we exchange paper masks for words.