The key to character

How do you define character?

It’s not as easy as it sounds. In the first week of the second section of the Coursera Creative Writing specialization course, called “The Craft of Character”, author Amy Bloom starts the discussion on character by telling authors to first look at those around them.

I think we all know that characters exist in two categories.

There are clichés who are made of stereotyped thoughts and actions, with little motivation of their own. They often appear like scenery rather than to move a plot along, and they can actually get in the way of action or impose obstacles to the flow of a story. I’ve heard this type of character called a “Mary Jane”, though I didn’t easily find any references to that title.

Then there is what I consider true characters, defined primarily by their motivations. As Bloom explains, they don’t need something, they want it, and that’s what makes them go from acting on instinct or program and into making choices – good and bad.

The problem I’ve always had with true characters is finding a way to create them without simply trying to copy someone I know – including myself.

Which brings me to the other thing we all know about characters: They are an extension of the author, no matter how Mary Jane or true they are.

The first week’s assignment is to look at a recent book, story, or film, to take two of the characters and identify their desire, need, or ambition, and then to create a new character based around that and write a short scene involving all three of them.

Fan fiction, in a simple format without requiring a full story arc or scene, but I found it challenging until I decided to open my mind a bit and take inspiration from something written as a graphic novel which I’ve been listening to as an audio play.

Title page and key monogram of The Mountain Lover by Aubrey Beardsley, from the Public Domain.

Here is what I turned in:

Fan Fiction based upon Locke & Key graphic novels by Joe Hill

Bode and Kinsey are living at Keyhouse in Lovecraft, MA, while trying to recover their lives after the murder of their father. They begin to discover magical keys which each have unique powers – such as the Anywhere Key which allows any door to be opened to anywhere else desired by the user. Bode desires to find more keys and explore what they can do. Kinsey is his teenage sister who only wants to use one key – the Head Key – to remove anything from her mind she feels is a liability – mostly fear and self-doubt. But both secretly want to use whatever they can do discover more about their father’s history with the keys and Keyhouse.

Black Waters Run Deep, an unfinished scene by Trevor Wilson

Joshua had been following Kinsey for weeks after school, looking for the opportunity to corner her, and the time had finally come.

Kinsey was walking ahead of him along the road. Her little brother, Bode, was buzzing around her and Joshua thought he heard mention of a key.

He took a deep breath and then jogged out from his cover, trying to appear as if he had just stepped out of a trail known to cut through to a nearby convenience store.

“Hey, Kinsey.” His voice sounded more confident than he felt. The sound of his heartbeat seemed louder than an old pick-up that drove by. “Hey, little guy, did you say you lost a key?”

Bode looked at Joshua with obvious distrust but also visible curiosity. Kinsey just appeared confused.

“Uh, Joshua, right? We have chem together?”

He nodded and tried to match step with the pair. Bode took up a position between him and Kinsey.

“I didn’t lose a key. I’m trying to find one,” Bode piped up suddenly.

Kinsey smiled, as if apologizing, and Joshua realized how pretty she was. “He has this obsession.”

“Well, you live in a house called Key House, right? Who wouldn’t have an obsession? I’m always finding lost keys.”

“You are?” Bode was suddenly on the tips of his toes.

“Yeah, but I can never find what they go to. I even found some in a sea cave.” He paused for dramatic effect. “You know, I think the cave is kind of near your house. That’s funny, huh?”

As excited as Bode now was, Joshua watched as Kinsey’s expression turned almost instantly from acceptance to distrust to anger.

“What the fuck is wrong with you? You heard stories about our dad, right? Now you want to fuck with us? Get the hell out of here,” she screamed and shoved him hard.

Caught off-guard, he stumbled on a rock hidden in the grass and fell into the mostly empty drainage ditch.

And, for the record, this audio play is amazing. Check it out on Audible.

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