How to “Weird Up” Your Characters in Fiction

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“There are many ways to enter a story,” said Sue Ring deRosset. “Character is one way.”

The author shared how to bring fictional characters to life during her workshop “From Flat to Round to Lumpy: How to ‘Weird Up’ Your Short Story Characters” at Old Town Library on Saturday, Oct. 21 as part of Poudre River Library District’s second annual Fort Collins Book Festival. She led about 30 participants through a series of exercises, and dissected excerpts from short stories with extraordinary characters.

Where do we get character ideas from? Participants came up with this list: reading; watching people; people we know; work, school, groups we belong to; strangers; acquaintances; newspapers; literature; historical figures to whom we are related, and not; voices; smells; art; photography.

Once you’ve come up with a set of characters, you must figure you what each wants to “conjure, shape, and animate your own creations.” What’s your character’s’ history? To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, what does your character yearn for with all her might? What drives her?

“The plot rises from the depth of who your protagonist is,” deRosset said. She drew icebergs to illustrate Hemingway’s concepts: the tip of the iceberg is what your readers see of your characters. The rest is everything else you know about them. The novel A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara contains great examples of introspection and reflection, deRosset said.

She led the class through an exercise in which we chose one person in the photograph accompanying the story “Labyrinth” by Roberto Bolaño, published in The New Yorker: Describe him or her, using both external and internal details: who they are, what they’re wearing, what their facial expression says, what they smell like. What kind of energy does your character give off? What is her talent or hobby? What are her memories, fears? What is her spirituality? What are her relationships? Her decision-making process? What does she want, need?

Did you write a sentence that feels true?

DeRosset dissected the two main characters in the 1990 short story “Men Under Water” by Ralph Lombreglia. Here’s a description of the protagonist’s friend:

“…Gunther has no eyebrows, no body hair whatsoever as far as I know; even the large nostrils of his great, wide nose are pink hairless tunnels running up into this skull. His velour pullover is open at the sternum, and the exposed chest is precisely the complexion of all the rest of him – the shrimplike color of new Play-Doh…”

The workshop concluded with deRosset providing Jamaica Kincaid‘s first piece of fiction: “Girl,” published in The New Yorker in 1978. It’s a prose poem in which a girl remembers all her mother’s advice. Kincaid was born in the British West Indies and came to New York when she was 17:

“Wash the white clothes on Monday and put them on the stone heap; wash the color clothes on Tuesday and put them on the clothesline to dry…this is how you sweep a whole house;…this is you smile at someone you don’t like too much;…this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea…this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming…this is how you bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up….”

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