by Thea Constantine
While we all try our best to be ourselves, who we are in one place is not necessarily who we are in another. The persona we show co-workers in an office environment is different from the one we display on vacation, or at home with friends or family. We are not being phony or inauthentic, but we are definitely different.
Who we are to the other characters in our lives varies, too. The closer people are to us, the more they see. The co-workers in that office environment who see you from 9 to 5 will likely have a viewpoint with a focus different from that of your parent or sibling, who has seen you from the earliest days. A great way to explore any character is to listen to what others say of them.
One of the things I love about a good mystery is following the detective as he or she questions everyone about the victim. The ex-wife or jilted lover gives us the juicy details the one-time partner left out. The cop who pulls someone over for a DUI, or catches him shoplifting, may have a darker tale to tell than that of the devoted grandmother. Slowly but surely, we begin to build a picture of the victim’s character – even though he may no longer be able to speak for himself.
But you don’t have to be a mystery writer to make this work for you.
Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr – journalist, novelist, editor of Le Figaro and the man who gave us plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the original French for “the more things change, the more they stay the same”) – once said, “Every man possesses three characters: that which he exhibits, that which he really has, and that which he believes he has.”
Take a look at the characters in your pieces. What do the other characters say about them? Do they notice unusual details? These details can go a long way to help you flesh out your characters and fill their veins with something more than ink. You can use this for memoir, too. You may be surprised, for instance, to discover what the people in your life notice about the way you react to stress or challenges.
Exploring as many of these aspects of your characters as possible can help answer not only your questions about who they are, but also help your plot or dialogue. Grab a piece of paper and make a list of everyone close to the primary character in your story, poem or memoir. Now ask each of them to describe that person, tell a story about them, or perhaps write them a letter. When you are done, take a peek at who’s looking back at you.
Thea Constantine is a writer and certified AWA facilitator with PDX Writers. Her short stories have most recently appeared in In Focus, the quarterly magazine of the PEN Cyprus Center; Stellazine; Roving Writers; “On the Yellow Line,” a weekly column for Street Roots; and an original serial for the online magazine The Black Boot. Her work has been included in a number of anthologies. She just won 1st Place Short Story in the maiden edition of the Watercress Journal. She is currently at work on her first novel, Stumptown.