Friday, July 03, 2015

The Small Things

Last night I was watching an old episode of  "Shark Tank". If you don't know the show, contestants make presentations to the "sharks" (a panel of celebrity investors), hoping to convince one of them to invest in the contestant's new product.  On the episode I caught last night -- because I'm always fascinated by the presentations -- a young man had developed a product that he offered as the solution to "bed head".  Rising to find your hair standing on end or a matted mess, you would put on a plastic cap that would saturate your hair with moisture, take it off and style as usual. As the young entrepreneur demonstrated the cap could even be used after you were fully dressed -- no mess, no fuss. As one of the sharks pointed out the product looked a lot like a shower cap. No one invested in the product, and I have to admit I wasn't impressed either.

But my reason for being unimpressed was that the young entrepreneur had lost me when he began his presentation by explaining that he showered at night and hated waking up "clean" with "bed head". For those of us who shower in the morning, the problem is either having to use a real shower cap or hair dryer or go out on a winter morning with damp hair. That brought me to the great debate -- and, yes, I have heard people come to rhetorical blows over the issue of when one should bathe or shower -- before going to bed or upon rising. Do you go to bed grimy from your day or do you put on clean clothes in the morning without washing your body. Of course, there is a third group that insists showering or bathing twice a day is the obvious solution. And a group like me that favors the morning shower but compromises with a stop at the bathroom sink before going to bed.

Yes, I am about to make a writing-related point. As I was thinking about the morning versus evening debate, it occurred to me that I was missing something when it comes to character creation. In my last post, I wrote about the challenge of creating a cast of characters for my historical thriller. As I mentioned, I've been consulting the writing books on my shelf. As a result, I'm been doing character bios and family trees and looking at dreams, fears, goals, and assorted motives. I've been asking myself questions such as, "What would  your character never do?" What I haven't asked myself -- and will now -- is how my characters do the things they do. When I'm reading a book, I love the dramatic moments. But when I'm getting to know a character, I look for and attend to the small things.

Actually, in real life, isn't it the small things that define who we are?  The way we do the things we do that the other people in our lives find irritating, bizarre, lovable, fascinating, or all of the above. Think of those 4th of July exchanges at the picnic table:
"Did you really just put mayonnaise on your hot dog? Yuck!"
"You do realize that cole slaw has mayo in it, right?"
"That doesn't count. Mustard. That's what you put on a hot dog."
"Thanks for telling me."

Think of the woman at work who uses her own silver teaspoon to stir organic honey (a jar brought from home) into her herbal tea. And across from her, the guy who is gulping strong black coffee while wolfing down a chocolate glazed something or other. He smirks at her, she gives him an icy stare.

So what occurred to me last night during the "bed head" discussion was that I need to flesh out my characters -- make them human -- by giving them preferences. Before I plunge them into the midst of my thriller, I need to follow each of my characters through an ordinary day and observe his or her choices. Some of these preferences could end up being moments of conflict in the book. Does Character X remain silent about Character Y's choice of mayo on his hot dog or feel compelled to voice an objection? Does Character Y smile, shrug, or ignore Character X's comment? How does Character X respond if he is ignored?

And that's why I'm going to make a chart displaying each character's personal habits and preferences. Somewhere in that chart will be gold.

P.S. I should add that the young entrepreneur with the "bed head" cap has since gone on to successfully market his product.

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