Characters – making them round.

I was disappointed. The writing seemed somewhat flat and the character remained distant. So, at the suggestion of the assignment, I retold the same scene using the present tense and from a first person perspective.

stick person, flat characterHow do you create ‘real’ characters? Characters that are round, not flat? Personalities that are interesting? People your readers care about?

For a recent Open University assignment, we were asked to write a scene using a stereotypical character, but showing the contradictions in the character in order to make him or her ’round’. I had in mind a suited business person, very successful, whose family life was a little less organised. I wrote the scene in the third person and past tense (the classic ‘literary’ story telling style).

I was disappointed. The writing seemed somewhat flat and the character remained distant. So, at the suggestion of the assignment, I retold the same scene using the present tense and from a first person perspective.

Here is my first attempt, written in the third person.

His P.A. had ordered the taxi, which arrived dead on time at six pm. She accompanied him through the air-conditioned grandeur of the reception area and handed him the prepared folders on the marble steps.

“It’s all there?” he asked curtly, although the question was unnecessary. His P.A., along with all his staff, was chosen for her attention to detail.

“The summary is on top, Sir Jeffrey, with the main points below and the detailed breakdown, should you require it, in the second folder beneath.”

He settled himself into the seat of the black cab, noting with distaste the scruffiness of the interior upholstery and making a mental determination to order another cost-benefit analysis of running a chauffeured car scheme. He flicked imaginary specks of dust off his pin-striped knees, before placing the folder on his lap.

Fifteen minutes to the Minister’s office – seventeen if the lights were red. More than enough time to refresh his memory of the main points of the bid and to remind himself of the carefully crafted arguments. Leaving nothing to chance, everything, from greeting the Minister to their final words on parting, had been prepared in advance. The folder was barely necessary – he knew the contents by heart – and it would soon be hidden in his briefcase, in keeping with the ‘off the cuff’ pretence of this evening’s assignation.

In due course, more meetings would follow; attended by trained negotiators, selected advisors and legal experts in contract law. Today was a preliminary foray only, a softening-up exercise, a “spur of the moment”, informal invitation by the Minister (an invitation that had, in reality, been carefully engineered to ensure it happened and was taking place as per line number eight of the project spreadsheet).

It was while he was waiting in the lobby, outside the Minister’s office, that he noticed an odd bulge in his jacket, spoiling the outline of his suit. As soon as he pulled it out from his pocket, he knew what it was, with a sinking sense of failure. The balled up piece of sticky paper unfurled in his hand – revealing a childish stick figure with wide eyes and a smiling face. Below the face, beside a blue pool of scribble that could represent a puddle of tears, were the multicoloured words:

“DoNt fourget MY birThday PartAy daDDy”

And here is my second attempt, written in the first person and changing the tense:

My P.A. has ordered the taxi, which arrives dead on time at six pm. She accompanies me through the air-conditioned grandeur of the reception area and hands over the prepared folders on the marble steps.

“Is it all there?” I ask, knowing the question is unnecessary. I chose my P.A carefully and only continue to employ her because of her attention to detail.

“The summary is on top, Sir Jeffrey, with the main points below and the detailed breakdown, should you require it, in the second folder beneath.”

As I settle myself into the seat of the black cab, I note the scruffiness of the interior upholstery and make a mental note to order another cost-benefit analysis of running a chauffeured car scheme for our senior executives. I flick imaginary specks of dust off my pin-striped knees, before placing the folders on my lap.

Fifteen minutes to the Minister’s office – seventeen if the lights were red. That’s more than enough time to refresh my memory of the main points of our carefully crafted arguments. Leaving nothing to chance, everything, from greeting the Minister to my final words on parting, has been prepared in advance. The folders are barely necessary – I know the contents by heart – and they will soon be hidden in my briefcase, in keeping with the pretence that this evening’s assignation is an ‘off the cuff’, opportunistic meeting.

In due course, more meetings will follow, I know this; attended by trained negotiators, selected advisors and our legal experts in contract law. Today is a preliminary foray only, a softening-up exercise, an informal, ‘spur of the moment’ invitation by the Minister (an invitation that has, in reality, been carefully engineered to ensure it happens, as per line number eight of our project spreadsheet). We leave nothing to chance. I make sure of that.

It is while I am waiting in the lobby, outside the Minister’s office, that I notice an odd bulge in my jacket, spoiling the outline of my suit. As soon as I pull it out from my pocket, I knew what it is. I have a gut-clenching, sinking sense of failure and almost stagger, as the balled up piece of sticky paper unfurls in my hand – revealing a childish stick figure with wide eyes and a smiling face. Below the face, beside a blue pool of scribble that could represent a puddle, or a pool of tears, are the multicoloured words:

“DoNt fourget MY birThday PartAy daDDy”

I prefer the second version. A very useful exercise.

Author: Ruth Livingstone

Walker, writer, photographer, blogger, Doctor, woman, etc.

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