Building Character (one donut at a time)

I 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 “rustic cafe,” 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? Because. The goal is to create a real, live character–someone we can identify with and believe in. Unless you spend a great deal of time in one of those three suggested locales, you won’t get real…you’ll get ideal. And frankly, ideal people are not very interesting. Go instead to the donut shop, the greasy spoon, the local pub. Go to the laundry mat, the barbecue, the chili cook off. Go home, for heavens sake. 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. 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).

So. Back to the donut shop I go to join both my protagonist and my villain. We three (all hopelessly addicted to the lousy coffee) meet and confer regularly over glazers and fritters and the odd box of chocolate-covered raisins. Characters complete, we are busy building worlds to inhabit.

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