Creating Vivid, Engaging Characters
Using a Scene to Engage a Reader in the Act.
There are many ways to describe an individual character. You could write about his red and white striped pants with a hole in the knee or the tick that cocks his head jarringly to the side. You can even talk about his work weary bowed legs. An engaging character is one that brings your reader into the scene as a participating player in the act.
Take this simple scene of an old man pushing a heavy load of rocks up a hill in a wheelbarrow.
As you read this scene, ask yourself if it immersed you in the plot.
If yes, then why? Would you like to find out what happened?
If it did not, also answer the question why not? Would you set this story aside and go back to pulling weeds?
An old man wrapped his gnarled hands tight around the splintered wooden handles of an ancient wheelbarrow. The creaking and crunching of the steel wheel on the cobbled path grated on the nerves of a young girl sitting on a rock step in front of a freshly painted stone house whose foundation seemed to be grasping the very sinew of the hillside to which it clung.
She watched, pulling a large unwrapped loaf of bread close to her chest as the steel wheel caught on the slightly raised edge of a loose rock, bringing the loaded wheelbarrow to a halt. For a long moment the old man pushed in an effort to defy gravity that pressed down like a giant hand against his progress up the steep grade. It was a tiny ledge in the rock, the excessive weight of the load, treacherous incline of the rocky path and the unwillingness of the steel wheel to bend that arrested the climb.
The splintered handles began to tear into the delicate skin of the old man. As the girl watched a small red splotch begin to grow on the sun drenched stones. She stared for a moment at a young man at the top of the hill who stood with his hands jammed on his hips and glowered impatiently.
“Git a move on, old man. I got men waiting for them rocks. You’re costing me money that I’m going to take out of your pay if you don’t get a move on.” The young man lifted his hat and wiped the sweat off his forehead on his sleeve. He slammed the hat back and forth across his knee and walked away angrily shaking his head.
The girl watched for a moment then brushed away the dust from the stone step where she sat. She laid the loaf down and stood up. Carefully she lifted her long skirt shaking it free of wrinkles and drew it around her waist where she tied it tight.
“Here,” she said pushing the old man aside. “Let me see that hand.” She unwrapped a flowered scarf she had tying back her long black hair and lifted the bleeding hand gently in hers. As if caressing a delicate flower, she wrapped the hand then drew it to her lips.
Without a word, she stepped between the cracked and splintered wood of this battered truck and pulled up on the handles. Straining against gravity, she let the load roll back slightly then slammed her body against the resisting forces and pushed the load to the crest of the hill.
“Where do you want these rocks?” she shouted at the startled young man still slapping the dust from his hat against his knee.
“I asked you a question man to man and you stand there slapping your knee. Where to?” said the girl suppressing a smile as three men sitting in the shade of a new rock foundation began to snicker.
What about the old man grabs your attention? It’s not his clothes or the powerful or perhaps scrawny legs. It isn’t a scraggly beard or a tattered hat with a hole in its peak.
In a few words all these possibilities were brought into play for the reader who just read about an old man pushing a wheelbarrow up a hill. This in itself says little, but the picture unfolds when drops of blood discolor the sun drenched stones, expanding the vision of an overworked man desperate to keep his job. He could be anybody’s father or uncle or brother. But he’s a man being pushed far beyond the limits that his aging body can endure.
This freshly painted house is just a prop that gives the reader a picture of a very steep, perhaps precipitous hillside where this scene is taking place.
The young man at the top of the hill?
The picture developed in the mind of the reader might be of a young punk responsible beyond his abilities. He could be the bosses son, or he could be the contractor on the verge of going broke. All we know is that there’s pressure bearing down on a young man who has no sympathy for an old man he sees as not capable of doing his job. The old man is merely an impediment that is costing him money. He has no time for delays by what he sees as an employee not up to the job.
The three men?
The reader sees little more of the three men than three guys who have run out of material and are kicked back in the shade. They could be experiencing just another harangue by this punk boss who himself is being pushed to the limit. He has probably inflicted similar tirades on each of these men in the past. But they insert a little humor in a scene that of itself is serious, but one in which they are a catalyst that is helping turn it into a farce. Could you take the three men out of the picture? Sure, but from where could you develop a tiny bit of levity that pulls the reader further into an act that is probably similar to experiences of the reader’s own past.
Did it need a more in depth description?
The location where this took place?
Did it matter? This could be anywhere in America or Europe or Africa.
We know she is young. We know she is carrying a large unwrapped loaf of bread. We know she’s not too concerned about hygiene beyond brushing some dust aside so she can lay the loaf on the stone step. This and the fact that she is not afraid to tie her long skirt up around her waist gives the reader a picture of a peasant girl. She could be sloppy and ugly with long tangled tresses. But, she cares about shaking the wrinkles out of her skirt and not letting it get tangled in the work. Her hair is tied back with a flowered scarf drawing a picture of a girl who cares about how she looks and could be a slender beauty.
What did we learn about the girl’s character?
We know she cared enough about the plight of the old man that she set her loaf of bread aside. She removed her scarf that could be viewed as a prize that she loved but without concern wrapped it carefully around the old man’s bleeding hand.
Finally, we know that the girl is not only strong physically, but that she has a commanding presence and a suppressed sense of humor that has challenged the young man who we have seen as a punk boss.
All of this comes from just a few words about six people we have very superficially described.
We could have lavished some flamboyant descriptions about the way these people are dressed? We could have expanded the picture of the work going on at the top of the hill as project placed in the hands of master artisans who are cutting each stone to perfectly fit at the base of a new cathedral. And there’s the old man who might have a short beard whose stubble is caught deep in the wrinkles of his craggy face and can’t be reached by a razor.
All of these things could be laid out to draw a picture the way you want the reader to see it. But, there are times and ways to paint a picture that allows the reader to draw his own brush across the canvas and apply the strokes and colors in a way that draws him into the act.
Drawing the reader into the act. That’s the trick. A writer wishes to allow a painting to develop in a way that plants the reader firmly as a participant in the drama and that keeps him or her desperately searching for a place to put the next stroke of the brush.
From here, it’s up to you to lay in the last brush strokes and finish this story.
Next: Look for “Using Language and Dialect to Engage the Reader in the Act.”