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:~: Friday, April 20, 2007 :~:

Character Snapshots

I always know far more about my characters than what ends up in my books. I remember reading an article about young adult author S.E. Hinton once in which she made the same kind of statement. As an example, she gave facts about her character Ponyboy that didn't make it into the book The Outsiders.

In order to write fully-formed characters, to know what makes them tick, what makes them act or react the way they do, I believe they have to become real. You have to know them inside and out. One of the ways I do this is to play with what I call "character snapshots." Back when I was teaching creative writing, I would have my students do this as well, and they always loved it.

What are character snapshots? Short snippets of scenes involving the character I'm developing. Usually, they are in first person, which I normally don't use when I'm writing. Many times, the snippets will reveal something about the character which I will use in the book; if not, they serve to give me a better feel for the character.

I thought I'd share with you a character snapshot I wrote a few years ago, for the hero of my June release Truth and Consequences.


Each morning I ride the #37 bus to school. The bus stop is a dump made out of weather-beaten plywood and pieces of old advertising boards. Sarah Taylor’s daddy put it together so we wouldn’t get wet, but the water blows in anyway through the cracks between the boards. So every morning, rain or shine, I stand in this gray little shack with “For Lease, 1-800-OUTDOOR” over my head and wait with the other people who ride my bus.

They’re rejects like me – kids who don’t wear designer clothes, kids who have uneven kitchen haircuts, kids who bring a lunch in a blue Walmart bag because Mama or Daddy doesn’t have the two dollars for lunch and they’re too proud to apply for free lunch. This morning, I hunched lower against the wind and hoped that when the bus pulled up, Kathleen Palmer wouldn’t notice the new hole I’d worn in my shoes or that I hadn’t been able to get the grass stain out of the white sweatshirt I’d already worn to school twice that week. Don’t know why I was worried – she’s a senior and a cheerleader and her daddy’s a rich lawyer who just got elected to the state house of representatives.. I’m just a freshman who lives in what has to be the most run-down singlewide trailer ever. She doesn’t even know I’m alive.

The bus was running late again. My cousins Jim Ed and Billy griped about the wind. I don’t know why they bother riding the bus anyway. Their mama ain’t poor. When Uncle Jimmy died of a heart attack last year, he left her plenty of life insurance, and they have a new car. But Jim Ed has a crush on Staci Harris, and Lord forbid he doesn’t get to ride to school with her.

Billy was in one of his mean moods, and he was giving Bruce Taylor a hard time. His teeth bared in a fake smile, he nudged Bruce’s shoulder. “Hey, Taylor, what’s in the bag, man?”

“Just lunch.” Bruce mumbled the words so low I barely heard them.

“Just lunch,” Billy mimicked, his voice high-pitched and just plain ugly. He poked at the blue plastic bag and set it swinging against Bruce’s arm. His eyes held the same look he’d worn when he beat ol’ Mrs. McCauley’s little dog to death – mean and blank but full of a weird kind of excitement gave me the willies. “Whatcha got for lunch?”

“Just a sandwich.” Bruce backed up against the wall, and I sighed. Didn’t he know you couldn’t show weakness with Billy? All it did was make him meaner. You had to act like nothing he did bothered you. I’d learned that lesson a long time ago.

Billy batted at the bag again. This time he hit it hard enough that his fingers left an impression in the tinfoil-wrapped packet inside the bag. I’d known Bruce Taylor long enough to know he wouldn’t touch that sandwich again. He’d go hungry through lunch and probably supper tonight too, because his daddy wouldn’t get paid again until Friday and who knew what was in their cupboards until then? I knew what that was like, when Mama had had to choose between the light bill and groceries, and we stretched a jar of peanut butter and a box of store brand Rice Krispies for three or four days.

Man, I’d know when I wasn’t poor anymore. Once I could buy real Kraft mayonnaise instead of the nasty store stuff, I’d have it made.

The bus rumbled to the top of the hill, puffing the red dust into clouds behind it. I glanced at Bruce, who was stuffing his ruined lunch into his jacket pocket. The bus stopped, brakes whining, and Jim Ed and Billy were the first to move to the door. No one else moved for a long moment. Quiet descended, broken only by the whistle of the wind through the cracks in the walls.

Billy looked at me over his shoulder. “You coming, cousin?”

I didn’t look at Bruce as I followed him. “Yeah.”

What techniques do you use for delving into your characters and making them real?



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