Creating Instant Personality

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An interesting article from Helga Scheir, over at Writer’s Digest, talks about creating instantly recognizable characters. But, I feel this is basically about giving the reader insights into a character’s personality before anything has been said — that whole pesky “show not tell” thing writing teachers are always harping about. The article interested me because of the example she gives:

Imagine this:

In one of your scenes, your President is sitting in the Oval Office, poring over papers. He is alone. Suddenly someone knocks at the door. A quick glance at his watch tells him that it is time for his 10 o’clock meeting. The President knows that within a few seconds, he’ll have to face the Speaker of the House, his arch enemy, who for political or personal reasons is intent on bringing him down.

Now imagine that your President is chewing gum.

What does he do in the split second between the knock on the door and the entry of his enemy? Does he swallow the gum? Does he take it out and throw it in the waste paper basket behind him? Does he take it out and stick it under his desk, where plenty of other gum is stuck already? Or does he keep chewing?

And I pondered that. What an interesting way to get some personality across with just a little action. What do those choices say to me? Well, swallowing the gum is intriguing; I’m instantly unsure about how to take people who’d rather swallow gum then just throw it out, especially if a trashcan is nearby. Throwing the gum out can further the character development — does he spit it into a wad of tissue so he doesn’t touch it, then carefully folds the tissue up and throws it away? Does he spit it into his palm, then spends a frustrating second trying to throw the gum into the trash can while it sticks to his skin, and then wipes his palm on his pants? Sticking gum to furniture has always struck me as something selfish people do. And finally, just keeping on chewing suggests someone who is confident but also laid back, maybe not that anal about “proper decorum.”

Wow, I thought, after pondering these things, you can sure do a lot with implied personality traits. I need to incorporate this more into my own writing.

What about you? Have you incorporated these little actions into your writing?

And what do the different actions with gum suggest to you about a person’s character?

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