Brandy Schillace: On Character Building (One Donut Shop at a Time)


Brandy SchillaceI have a great affinity for donut shops…But not because I am especially fond of pastries.

It has more to do with the reality of such places. Here, the mundane becomes concrete and tangible: the florescent pink door handle, the flickering light of glass cases, the smell of coffee and powdered sugar (and crisping dough creations in the back-room oven). From the badly designed Styrofoam cups–with lids that never quite fit–to the faux wood shelves attempting to capture a sense of “rustique,” the donut shop is quintessential for one of my favorite fiction exercises… the character build.

Why? Why not create character in a chic Parisian cafe? Or a veranda in Venice? Or a yacht off the Caribbean coast? You could. But the goal is to create a real, live character–someone readers can identify with and believe in. Unless you spend a great deal of time traveling to or researching those three suggested locales, instead of real, you’ll likely get ideal. And frankly, ideal people aren’t very interesting.

Fundamentally, character-building, like world-building, requires research. The difference tends to lie in dynamism versus stasis. Usually, once we have a map of our landscape, it remains the solid surface upon which and through which change happens. One of my novels takes place in Newport News, Virginia. I can rearrange street names a bit for effect, but I can’t add a mountain range in middle of town (unless that happens to be part of the plot—Newport News and the Unexpected Everest). The setting does influence the characters, though, and characters do change. They talk, too, and if you haven’t a good foundation for your character, dialogue is endlessly difficult. So how do we begin?

Over the past few years, I’ve taught a number of college-level creative writing classes, and I’ve learned one powerful truth: no one likes a group assignment. Fiction writing is personal and my students, many of whom are very unsure on their authorial legs, are horrified at sharing. For those of us who write regularly (published or unpublished, fiction or non-fiction), we know that the golden rule of becoming a better writer is to have readers and reader-feedback. But assume for a moment that you don’t know that—or that you are, like my students, brand new to the experience. It can be utterly horrifying. So, I found several strategies very useful for getting a writer out of their own head, and these work equally well for a more seasoned writer stuck in the character-building no-man’s-land.

First, we asked a writer to give us the name of her lead character and a series of traits. This student, who I’ll call “Sue,” had fleshed him out a bit already: Male, fair complexion, a bit wishy-washy, looking for work. The plot revolved around the main character accepting a dodgy job offer, so this way of perceiving him made plenty of sense. But none of us could “see” the character yet, and Sue had trouble finding his voice. So we did an experiment—and I asked the unthinkable:

“Sue, I want you to sit quietly for the next ten minutes and let the class take over your character.”

high-stakes-frontcoverIf I had asked her to wrestle live octopi while wearing a meat-suit in shark-infested waters, the result would have been about the same. But this was a necessary intervention. For the next ten minutes, regardless of the plot, Sue’s classmates came up with additional traits. He was gluten intolerant and had other food allergies. He’d broken up with his girlfriend the week before. He had a green thumb for houseplants. His sweater was on backwards. Etc., etc. The scene was slightly frenzied; it was amazing to behold the creativity spawned by this trait list. Some of the suggestions were rather silly. Others ended up being important (and in fact, the character remained a sufferer of Celiac disease). It didn’t matter that Sue would throw away much of the suggested material as inappropriate or unnecessary to the story. Her hero had become real to the rest of us and so also to Sue; his hesitant step as he entered the tea shop, awkwardly turning down his interviewer’s offer of pastry because of allergies, sealed him in our minds. And of course, the scene developed at the same time. Sue had seen the character through the eyes of other people, and the gritty not-glamorous reality of a Midwestern bubble-tea shop suddenly infused the scene with new life. And of course, it helped that there was a bubble-tea shop not far from campus—and that research might involve a beverage and people watching.

I dub my classes “no-fear creative writing” because I do, in fact, ask them to perform feats of great boldness in the face of insecurity. Another exercise actually required students to trade main characters, putting them in entirely new scenes and time periods to practice the relationship between scene, setting, and character. I imagine I’ve been cursed a-plenty, but I’ve also witnessed great successes, particularly with dialogue. On March 21st, Stephen Leigh spoke extensively about dialogue (and its discontents). As he explains, “Your plot will force your characters to respond in some manner.  How they respond to the stimulus of the plot is characterization.” The same may be said of setting; our gluten-free, nervous job-seeker would look very different if plunged, suddenly, into Cold-War intrigue as a spy—but if we have developed that firm foundation, he will nonetheless respond and speak with the same voice.  

SO, if you are struggling with characterization, I have two strategies to suggest. First, go to the donut shop, the greasy spoon, the local pub. Go to the laundry mat, the barbecue, the chili cook off. Let the warmth and light of real places and people (with the grit and the soot, the dirt and the smudge, the cackle and the gossip) soak into your creative synapses. Let the dung of the ordinary fertilize your garden. Second, share these characters. Try out some of the exercises above. Let people intrude upon your vision and so expand it. You don’t need to keep it all, but you may learn from the experience and see with fresh eyes. In the end, you might be very surprised by what you end up with…you might find that the characters don’t look the way you expected or behave the way you want. They might argue with you, even. Good. That means you have done the hard part–you created something with vittles, innards, guts. In general, they will take over the rest (whether you want them to or not).

We will look more specifically at plot (what to do with the characters once you’ve got them) next time. For now, let’s talk about strategies—these or your own. I look forward to your comments!


Author, historian, and adventurer at the intersection, Brandy Schillace spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between literature and medicine. Taking a cue from Edward Gorey and John Bellairs, she writes Gothic fiction with a medical twist. Her first series, The Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles, will be out spring 2014 with Cooperative Trade. Dr. Schillace is research associate at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History, managing editor of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, book reviewer for the Huffington Post, and chief editor for the Fiction Reboot and Daily Dose blog. She helps develop medical humanities curriculum for the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College and teaches for Case Western Reserve University’s SAGES program. Her non-fiction book, Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying can Tell us about Life and Living, will be released in 2015 with Elliott and Thompson.

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10 comments to Brandy Schillace: On Character Building (One Donut Shop at a Time)

  • Ken

    Great post, Brandy. Getting out to the donut shop sounds a lot like “Go out and people watch”…only with donuts 🙂 I’m developing the habit, whenever I’m out-n-about to not just look at the folks standing in line with me, etc, but to actually SEE them standing there with their ripped, abraided, etc, jackets, and spotting logos on hats and t-shirts, and (at the grocery store) what they’re buying and how they deal with waiting in line. It’s all grist for the old mental mill…even if noting jumps out at me at the time.

    There are so many little details that make up real people…

    I like the idea of gathering together a group of writer friends and tossing a character into the ring and let them have at it to see what they come up with.

    Oh, and if it hasn’t been said before: Welcome to Magical Words. We’re glad you’re here 🙂

  • Seconding Ken’s welcome. Great to see you here, Brandy. I think the idea of allowing your class to take over a student’s character is amazing — innovative, gutsy, unsettling in a good way. Just brilliant. I think you must be an incredible teacher. Oh, and I love the name of the class, too.

    For the rest of you, I have read and blurbed HIGH STAKES. It’s a fun book and I recommend it.

  • bschillace

    Thank you! I agree, Ken, there is such a difference between seeing and “really” seeing; the world is much bigger when I take time to notice. 🙂 Thanks for the welcome, both of you! I do love my no-fear writers, and they usually end up liking the exercise so much that, after initial hesitation, the rest sign up willingly to have their characters bandied about. I also developed a “writing game” where we listed traits and then coupled the most unlikely together into a single character. These were then given a range of possible settings and crises. Students picked character, setting, crisis–and then they exchanged these with a partner. Stories were written from the unusual circumstances and then read out loud to laughter and applause. It built their confidence tremendously!

  • Razziecat

    This is a totally amazing idea. And believe it or not, I’ve seen something like this, but not in a class. There’s a fanfic writer, a terrifically talented one, whose work I’ve read, and she’s done this very thing: Taken characters from one setting and put them into very different settings, given them completely different occupations and backgrounds then the ones they were created with, and I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on WHY it works so well. This post explains it: She plays with the relationships between all of these elements, reshaping them, making sparks that bring to life something new and dynamic. Love the idea of the writing game, too. These are very intriguing ideas! Thanks for the great post! 😀

  • I’ve been enjoying all the character posts from everyone. This round robin sort of thing I remember from my middle school days, and it was kind of fun, until you got someone who thought that “clad” was a name…but I digress.

    I usually end up doing a Q&A session with myself that starts with what the character generally looks like, hair, eyes, build, then I start asking questions. What do they want? Why did they start on this path? Do they have family? What are they like? If the family is dead, what were the circumstances? How did that change the character? Etc. I usually end up with a paragraph of questions and answers split off with emdashes, but it keeps the characterization solid in my head and gives me the voice and mindset of the character, which is where I write from, a very narrow tight first or third person. And it’s sometimes why I write in odd tenses at times, because even the narration comes from that character’s head.

  • bschillace

    Thanks, Razzicat! In one of my novels-in-process, a former villain ends up in a very different role and it was amazing the sorts of things it revealed to me about his character. I think it would be interesting to try something like this in a writing group of published authors, too; can you imagine the fun you could have trading main characters in really well-conceived narratives? I love the idea of fan-fic-ing our own work. 😉

  • bschillace

    I’ve done the QA, too, Daniel–I find it helpful and often keep a cheat-sheet for myself (especially when I’m working fantasy and have a large cast of characters to keep track of). At the same time, I find that the characters frequently develop organically once I get them talking. My cheat-sheets end up with a lot of revision marks–and are sometimes abandoned in the end. On the other hand, it is nice to go back to them later and compare the beginnings of the characterization and the end result. Thanks for sharing! I love reading about how people come to their characters.

  • “At the same time, I find that the characters frequently develop organically once I get them talking. My cheat-sheets end up with a lot of revision marks–and are sometimes abandoned in the end.”

    Absolutely. 🙂 And I think that’s part and parcel to good characterization. Get the basis down and then let them grow from there. Your class sounds like fun, by the way. 🙂

    And as far as trading characters in narrative, the Thieves World novels were pretty much that and I really enjoyed that series. There were a few rules that were put in place, but it’s a fun exercise. I kind of did the same thing with an online community where we told a communal story and sometimes used each others characters with our own and the development was interesting. It went on for quite some time. It’d be fun to do something like that again.

  • bschillace

    I lost my writing community when I moved; I’m looking forward to rebuilding one–and I am seeing the value of online communities. I’d like to hear more about that process, Daniel. (I already feel richer and more energized just being on MW!)

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