2017.08.28 19:25 | David Scharf
Sometimes I can be walking or driving somewhere and I’ll see a face of an older person.
The facial lines, the squint or furrowed brow sets off that face from the crowd around it. Veterans gatherings have dozens of faces that thousands of stories to tell.
One exercise that I use quite often is to get on Fiverr and give five photoshoppers two pictures of two different men. I ask that they merge the picture to create the face of a new man. Each rendered image looks unique because it is the perception of the photoshopper and the manipulation tools used.
It is that rendered image that I blow up to an 8-1/2 by 11” portrait and hang on the wall. I have a set of questions that I ask myself about that face.
WHO ARE YOU?
The answer to this question is not a name. It is more like a “What.” A good man gone bad. A schoolteacher who snapped one day and picked up a gun. A man who was fired off his job and decided to go back for revenge. There are 5 specific areas in a background that fill in:
This is designed so that no one person can know the whole story about this man. It is a conglomeration of information that forms the picture in the reader’s mind. And it is an assembly of information over time. You want to paint an abstract picture of a life so that the reader must think about the personality of your character. You want the reader to “tell me more.”
WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
I like to ask that picture on the wall about where they were before they were here. Remember, today’s bus drivers and truck drivers are not all that much different from the stagecoach drivers of the 1800s. Everybody has been somewhere. Some people have been everywhere, click here to learn more about writing .
Try this on for size: Man was born in West Virginia. Father moved them to Ohio at age four. Nice life. Flew to Florida to get away from the bad. Stayed for four years living on the bayou, drinking, and shrimping. Now you have a forty-year old man who has been back and forth across the US. He cannot seem to hold a job, bad luck in love, a drinking problem and likes to bare-fist fight. Where can you take this character?
WHEN DID YOU LEAVE X AND GO TO Y?
People one day packed up everything, got on a boat and months later landed in the New World. My next-door neighbor loads up his big Harley and heads for New Orleans because he feels like it. Or maybe it is time for the Sturgis run.
Try this on for size:
Your character used a crow bar to wedge open that back door of a store in Bakersfield. No alarm. No dog. Inside he took clothing, socks, and a pair of shoes. Five minutes, he was gone. All along the way, you have your character do something that portrays his desperation. Petty crimes. Robberies. Shoplifting. Something that drives him on to the next location. Give your character the “running form the crime” attitude. It is a drifter existence. A nomadic life. And you as a writer and author leave a trail of broken locks, broken bones and lucky breaks in his wake.
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?
A while back there was a huge shoot-out between a couple of motorcycle gangs in Texas. Over fifty people were arrested for assorted charges. As each one came up for indictment, their personal history began to come out.
One man’s legs were gnarled and severely scarred. He had trained fighting dogs for years and suffered bites and attacks from his pupils. Read these stories and connect someone’s real life background to your fictional character.
Also, not everyone walks around with a beautiful halo hovering above them. Even the best of men have shortcomings and failings. Maybe your character discovered the cure for lung cancer, single-handedly terra-formed Mars and solved the world hunger problems. He also suffers from hemorrhoids and ingrown toenails that make him want to kill something.
WHY DO YOU HAVE THAT SCAR?
There are three reasons why people have scars. Mother Nature, another human being, and myself.
Tree fell on me. Wind blew shingle off the roof and it hit me. Lightning struck a power line and the arc jolted me. Dog/horse/cow/elk/cat/snake bit me. Sun burned me. Earthquake/Flood/Hurricane did that to me.
Knife fight. Bar fight. Buckshot. Broken bottle. Lynched. Hit by a ar/truck/scooter/bicycle Myself
Cut myself shaving. Tripped and fell. Car accident. Slipped off trail/bridge/road/path
Hammer/saw/screwdriver/knife missed and hit me. Climbing over/crawling under/squeezing through someplace.
It signifies a level of common stupidity when a character admits to doing something ridiculous. The reader empathizes. Inside of us is the secret about us doing exactly that. We get a memory flash going back over that little white scar on our left forearm. One of the most human things you can do to make your character real is to have him do
Do something to your character that will make someone else walk up and ask, “Mister, why do you have that scar? What happened to you?”
I have one of those minds where I can see a painting of an old, broken down barn and within five minutes tell you about the men who used to work in it. That barn on Walking Dead where all those zombies were kept is the end result of someone dreaming up driver. Get started.
Read all of Lee Anne Wonnacott’s western romance and adventure novels, Newton Cutter, Iron and Rawhide, Rage at Rancho del Oro, Nick Stolter and From Windy Ridge to the Flint Hills.