A few weeks go, there was another great episode of The Office. In this episode (see the clip from Hulu) Michael does one of his terribly embarrassing, offensive, and in-the-real-world-would-get-you-fired things that we love to watch him do on TV. I will relate it to writing. I love making analogies to writing!
Michael gives a presentation on his great sales record to other branches. (Note also that this is one of many redeeming qualities of Michael that allows us to forgive him his awkward mistakes. Others are that he treats his officemates like family and really, really wants to be in love). In this session, Michael lets them in on a trick he uses to remember people’s names.
Michael proceeds to point at people right there in the room and say lots of offensive things about each person's physical appearance that I really can’t bear to repeat. But what he’s doing here is giving each person a character tag. In writing, this is a unique physical characteristic, mannerism, hobby, speech pattern, etc. that quickly helps the readers keep track of characters and fleshes out their personality.
I remember in one critique group a writer submitted a historical fiction piece. It had a lot of description and dialogue, but there was one character, the protagonist’s Aunt, who had a large, purple feathery hat on. Everyone in the group agreed that the one thing that stood out for us was this very minor character’s big purple hat and how she clumsily got out of the carriage as she was trying not to smash the feathers on her hat. And then how as she talked excitedly the rest of the night, the purple feathers on her hat would bob up and down.
I am writing a novel based in an office. Since I’m just in the first draft, I am not going crazy deep into character development just yet. However, I realized I’m having a hard time keeping track of the characters. And when I’m deep in the zone of pounding out words, I don’t want to scroll back 30 pages to remind myself what the name was of the guy who sat to the right of my character in last week’s meeting. Such a diversion will surely take me out of the story and so I keep on writing. I hope that later I will remember that when I said Bob on page 187 I meant Tom from page 146. But I’ve come to realize this may not be the case.
So yesterday, like the great Michael Scott, I named a character Mustache Jeff. I will never forget who he is and in another scene later that day I went on to describe all the glorious shades of brown, gray, white and yellow in his bushy, magnificent mustache.
And while I certainly don’t condone remembering people in real life this way (OK, if you must call me Big Blue Eyes Lisa I’ll let you) I do think it’s a simple and quick way to distinguish your characters in that rush of a first draft. And go back and develop those traits as you revise. You don’t want a one-dimensional character that’s nothing but mustache.
As I revise I’ll think things like, what does a guy with a mustache do? Does he have a wife/girlfriend/partner who begs him to shave his ‘stache or do they love the tickle of his whiskers on their face? When he’s shaving, does he comb his ‘stache? Then these become not just details about a mustache, but a character’s personality. If a guy combs his mustache each morning (knowing nothing about mustache maintenance, I am really stretching here, but just please go with me for the sake of example) does that mean he also puts his dishes right in the dishwasher after he eats? Is he the guy with a perfectly clean desk at work?
A quick little tag can soon develop into a full-blown character with real human traits just like you and me (aka Big Blue Eyes Lisa.)