Don’t short-change your characters …

They may be deeper than you realize

~ By Jeff Salter

I’m sharing one of my real-life experiences:  something I observed at our Veterinary Clinic about 14 months ago.  I learned something important about others and about myself — and I realized how it can (or should) tie-in to our writing.

——

A heavy-set man was in front of me in line at the Veterinary Clinic counter — he looked pretty rough and dour.  I didn’t pay all that much attention except to note the receptionist had him sit to wait for Dr. B.

I began my business with the receptionist and also had to wait [I was picking up my mother-in-law’s dog].  I didn’t really resent having to run this errand, but I was NOT happy about it.  I fiddled with my phone camera because I’d been instructed to take a pix of ‘Ginger’ (after her grooming).  Nobody else was in the waiting room, so I tried to engage that man by verbalizing my difficulty in getting the camera to function.  No response.

It seemed odd.  Usually most people at the Vet seem eager to engage.  So I chalked him off as somebody who also didn’t want to be there; I guessed he’d been coerced into running this errand and really wanted to be off somewhere pounding nails or pouring concrete.

Shortly, Dr. B. appeared in the waiting room’s doorway.  I didn’t catch everything he said because I wasn’t really paying attention.  But I heard Dr. B. ask if the man wanted to go ‘back’ to the office to go over the results.  Or would he like to have ‘her’ – I presume wife or daughter – call Dr. B. later for those results.  Difficult to tell what the man replied.  I still had him pegged as not giving a hoot either way.

Shortly a clinic employee appeared with a little frou-frou dog like a Bichon.  Now I had assumed the whole story:  the guy was coerced into running this errand, he was impatient to leave, and the frou-frou dog was his wife’s pet.  He just wanted to pay and get on with his real interests.

Then Dr. B. began going over the results … right there in the doorway.  “These readings are literally off the chart, that’s why you don’t see a mark.  The other levels are way high.”  More medical detail about the test results.

It was then I noticed the man (his back to me) wiping tears from his eyes.

Dr. B. kept on explaining with no visible emotion [I guess Vets have to be that way].  Soon the man began sobbing … but he never said a word.

Why do I share this story?  [Depressing as it is]. Because most of us have been there — hearing that bad news from a Vet.  But mostly because I stood there and ‘judged’ this man as an uncaring bum … when all the time he was grieving (clearly knowing that this little dog would have to be put down).

He left with the dog and Dr. B. gave him some private phone numbers.  “Have your wife call me when y’all make up your minds.  Any time.”

With tears streaming down his face, the man left … without saying a word.

Me too.

——

Just as I learned a heart-breaking lesson about this actual individual – that he was a LOT deeper than I had assumed (by his appearance and lack of interaction) – it’s often too easy for us to write characters with a similar lack of dimension.  That man was a lot deeper than I gave him credit for.

I realized that I’ve written characters who were too shallow because I took the easy way out and just propped up some one-dimensional cut-outs … to move along my story.

For me, the lesson is:  be attentive to your characters and look for something which can sneak up on your reader … just as this man’s tears sneaked up on me.

Your characters may be – or perhaps should be – deeper than you may realize.  Don’t short-change them … or your readers.

QUESTIONHave you ever written a character who does something much deeper than you’ve led the reader to expect?

Jeff Salter has completed seven novel manuscripts, three of which he considers chick lit.  He also co-authored two non-fiction books with a royalty publisher, in addition to an encyclopedia article and a signed chapter. Jeff has also published articles, book reviews, and over 120 poems. His writing has won nearly 40 awards, including several in national contests. He’s a retired librarian, a decorated Air Force veteran, and a published photo journalist. He’s married with two children and six grandchildren.

22 thoughts on “Don’t short-change your characters …”

  1. Great post, Jeff! There really is so much more to people than what we see on the outside. Talk about grabbing those heart strings and pulling tight! What a a great way to remind us not to jump to conclusions. My heart goes out to the couple. It’s so hard to say good-by. Every person we meet is another chance to bring our characters to life. So much great material out there! Now that people are finding out I’m a writer, they keep asking me if I’m going to use something they did or said in one of my books. I just smile…:)

  2. Thanks, Runere, you are too kind to this old hound.
    As writers, most of tend to be watchers of people. In that capacity, I’ve always fancied myself a good ‘analyzer’ of folks I observe. So it’s good, occasionally, to have that smugness challenged. We never know what other folks are going through until we walk a mile in their moccasins.

  3. Meaningful lesson to us all, Jeff. I have to admit, my characters have surprised me a time or two. Those moments are the best. To discover they’ve grown without me is a great honor to me as an author!

  4. Loved this post, Jeff. Hate that man’s pet will have to be(or may have already been)put down.

    But you know what? By using her and her owner as a means of instruction,that little dog will probably live on as an example of what touches other lives around us. On top of that, I admire your courage in admitting you made an erroneous assumption, and used it as a lesson for other writers.

    Thanks, Superdude! You can be counted on for the best commentary and continue to amaze me!

  5. Jeff, this was so interesting to read. I people watch…a lot. It’s my way of keeping my skills as a writer tweaked 🙂 But, you are correct in that it can take you in a general–expected–direction.

    Great story. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. Maureen, thanks for stopping by. Yes, I’ve read my share of one-dimensional characters. Sometimes it hasn’t really hit me what what ‘missing’.
    But when a character is fully fleshed-out, he / she is a lot more interesting. And can make our stories crackle.

  7. Yes, Chris, but I’m ashamed at how many of my younger years went by before I realized all people had ‘value’. And it’s so much more fun — though challenging, of course — to write characters who also have heart and soul … not merely voices and actions to move the plot along.

  8. Thanks, Laurie.
    I’ll bet those characters who scream at you to let them out of the box are very interesting, multi-dimensional individuals. It’s only proper of you to provide a sequel for them to spread their wings.

  9. Thanks for the reminder, Jeff. Not so much about the bad news part, but about seeing the human value in all people, and delivering characters with heart and soul.

  10. Now my heart is breaking for some poor man I’ve never met and probably never will, but it truly is humbling to realize that person we judged too quickly is far deeper than we realize. and while it’s important for me to remember that when I’m writing my characters, it’s even more important to remember it in my daily life. Great post, Jeff!

  11. Nice. I come to a chicklit site and you make me cry. lol
    Your response to Jenn really hit home with me about secondary characters. I tend to write sequels because I always have at least one character who screams for me to let them out of their box.

  12. Very true, Lois, and thanks for commenting.
    Yes, I’ve known people whose shyness made them appear aloof to some others.
    And, yes, this Vet clinic episode was a life lesson to me before I re-thought of it in the context of writing characters.
    It made me feel ashamed that I had ‘judged’ that big burly man as not caring about the frou-frou dog. Avoid stereotypes in life … and avoid them in writing.

  13. Jeff, that was very touching. It made me tear up also because as a pet person I too have been in that waiting room. I think that you are right about not short changing your characters, but since I am not a writer I take it as a life lesson. How many times have we judged people by their outward expressions or by the way they are dressed when we really don’t know what is going on inside of their head or their heart.
    As a grown person I have become re-acquainted with people with whom I grew up. As a young person I had written some of them off as snobs only to find out later that they were not snobs, they were shy.

  14. Thanks, Jenn. Sorry about the tears. It choked me up to remember this scene, to write it and to re-read it. And since I’ve also been the guy at the Vet office getting the bad news, I know how this man felt.
    And like you, I’ve had characters who I needed mainly to walk-on and deliver some dialog that I needed to move the plot forward. But a few of them have demanded more stage time … and the results have been delightful (un, these are romantic comedies).
    Glad you stopped in. How’s the action over at Muse Tracks today?

  15. Well, gosh darn it, Jeff. Why did you go and make me tear up like that? You should be strung up by your toenails. 😛

    You are right, though. We should be more attentive to our characters, even the secondary ones. It’s happened to me, too. I’ve written in a character to serve a purpose within the world of my hero/heroine, and they ended up being much more dimensional than I expected. That’s a good thing, not meaning to allow them such room but they grow anyhow.

    Great post, even though you made me cry (grumbles and sticks out tongue).

    Jenn!

  16. Thanks to Melissa for offering this guest appearance today. Hope it’s not too much of a ‘downer’ … but I learned an important lesson that day and I really do think it applies to our writing.
    BTW, our sixth grand-child was born just this past Friday! And I haven’t actually *completed* my 7th novel ms. — but I do have 40k words on that W.I.P.

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