When my son and I returned home this morning, after mass for The Feast of The Immaculate Conception and breakfast at our favourite bagel deli, I put on the television for the Arsenal v West Brom match then I put the extra doughnut and bagels we bought on the kitchen counter. Next, I opened the brown bag with the bagels - 3 plains - ripped one in half, ripped one of the halves open and buttered it. The bagel was no longer steaming and the butter didn't melt and ooze but, when I bit into it, it was absolutely delicious.
As I did all of this, I thought of a character - as yet, uncreated and unnamed - who could appear in one of my works-in-progress. My entire bagel experience wasn't just an 'in the mood' thing. I do really enjoy a fresh, cool bagel with butter, pretty much, anytime. Add a touch of grape jelly or Nutella and we're really set. What struck me, and this wasn't the first time something like this has slapped me in the face, was how much writing material there was in these few moments. I thought, too, how characters must be different and possess their own traits and idiosyncrasies; that they must be unique from one another even if they're, say, the same gender and age and ethnicity and grew up in the same town.
From my bagel experience this morning, the things that came to mind for specific character traits were enjoying a fresh, but cool, bagel with butter and the phrasing I used to express my like for bagels with butter. It dawned on me that I often express things I with "There's nothing better than..." Another thing I often say - a friend pointed this out to me a year or so ago - when asked how something was that I'd eaten for the first time or tried in a new way at a particular eatery is, simply, "tasty." I say that when it was good enough but not the best I've ever had or when it was good enough but I don't know if I'll get it there again. I also say it when I don't hate it.
I also tend to cover my upper lip with my lower one. A former student pointed this out. At first, I was self-conscious about it after she'd said something. Now, I'm just aware of it. I think it's actually part of my (self-diagnosed) minor Tourette's; along with the swallowing reflex that erupts when I'm nervous, my twitching nose tics, erratic coughs even when nothing is tickling my throat or when I'm not sick, and my occasional, spasmodic nods.
I bring these things up because, like I said about my bagel experience, I could use them for character traits. A couple of weeks ago, I finished the first draft of my second novel. There are many characters and I was extra conscious of trying to make each of them unique. It's only a first draft so there are loads of revisions to be made but I found myself sitting, staring at the computer screen, thinking of ways to make some of these similar characters different in their mannerisms and speech, and other personal nuances, while still making them real. There are books and websites that help writers sort these things out. I've tried some of them and, as a whole, I'm sure they're all very helpful in some way but we really don't have to look far and wide to find great source material for character nuance.
Just take a look at yourself in the mirror or a photograph. As many as there are topics to be discussed, there are as many opinions, thoughts and feelings in your minds and hearts on each of those topics. Why not spread those thoughts and feelings around with your characters? Many of us writers wear multiple hats throughout each day and at different times of the year. Me, here are the hats I wear: husband, father, teacher, volleyball coach, Taekwondo master, soccer fan, Broadway wannabe, track and field coach, catholic, runner, blogger and, of course, writer. From these different - some isolated and some related - parts of my life I can extrapolate, not just the 'hat' (one character might be a husband, another might be a teacher, etc) but different mannerisms, customs, feelings I have for and because of each one.
I know I feel differently about teaching now than I did when I started almost twenty years ago. I even feel differently about Taekwondo now than I did when I put on my white belt in 1985. Some of those different feelings are positive and some are negative. Writing and being a writer, too, has changed for me. It's not just something I do but it's something I've become. If I were, say, writing a story about a magazine that's about to fold, I might have one character who's older and sees things with the eyes I look at writing with now and I might have a teenager looking for his first beat and he'd seen things the way I did twenty or so years ago.
You might be thinking that all of this sounds really simplistic and that it's really obvious. I agree with you. It is simplistic and it is obvious but sometimes we need to be reminded about what is right in front or inside of us. It's just a suggestion. The next time you catch yourself, as your tapping on your keyboard, say, "What would so-and-so say/do/feel about this?" how about you first say, "What would (your name) (one of your many hats) say/do/feel about this?"
Try it. You've got nothing to lose and you might find you've created a wonderfully complex and real protagonist.
Happy writing all!