How do you create a character?
Here’s an example of how I came up with two characters for a Tall Tale I called Simple Hans and Nadine the Put-Down Queen.
Hans was inspired by a Planet Fitness commercial. Next (since I was writing a Tall Tale) I reviewed some Paul Bunyan stories to build up his larger-than-life feats. To emphasize his “short on brains” characteristic I decided that all of his speech was words of one syllable (and wasn’t that a challenge!)
Hans has a German/Austrian accent, sort of like Schwarzenegger, but not menacing at all.
Nadine was the opposite of Hans in many ways. She started out with the wry humor and put-downs of an old flame’s sister (who came up with the definition of a bar as “a place to pick people up and put people down”), but physically is like Olive Oil (as compared to Hans’ Popeye). I went searching for put-downs on the Internet, and picked several that contrasted nicely to Hans’ simple speech.
Nadine speaks with a light falsetto, and always tilts her head and bats her eyelashes after she insults someone. These sorts of details are important if you’re going to tell a Tall Tale (this was part of a speech contest).
Although Hans and Nadine are the focus of the story, there are a couple other characters. The employer who interviews Hans is a slimy character who talks in a breathy voice through his nose and says “okay” by drawing out the “o” and clipping the “kay”.
Then there’s the narrator. Since this is a speech, the voice of the narrator is the natural voice of the story teller.
Now that you see how I constructed the characters, here’s the Tall Tale:
Gather round everyone and I will tell you the story of Simple Hans and his girlfriend Nadine the Put-Down Queen.
Hans is muscular guy, built short and wide. He is big on muscles with a big, wide smile, but short of stature and a little short on brains.
I met Hans when he came in to the store where I work looking for a job. His interview went something like this:
[Employer] Come on in and have a seat. What is your name again?
[Employer] And your last name?
[Employer] Your full name is Hans Hans?
[Hans] Just Hans.
[Employer] Oookay. So tell me Hans, what kind of work are you looking for?
[Hans] I pick tings up an put dem down.
[Employer] Oookay. Do you have any hobbies?
[Hans] I pick tings up an put dem down.
[Employer] Oookay. Well we don’t have any openings right now, but we’ll give you a call when we do.
Instead of working at Toys R Us Hans got a job as a drawbridge operator. This turned out to be a cost cutting measure by the State. They “forgot” to show him how to work the motors on the bridge, so every day Hans would raise and lower the bridge by hand. The State is saving so much money on electricity that Hans has his own line in Coumo’s budget!
I ran into Hans recently at a bar. The bar really suited him; it was the perfect place to pick people up and put people down. Also at the bar was Nadine the Put-Down Queen. She is tall and willowy, and guys are always trying to pick her up, but her tongue is so sharp she has to use self-stick stamps to mail a letter. She has put-downs for everyone:
[Nadine] You’re the first guy I’ve met who’s immune from brain cancer.
[Nadine] I’m sorry, I don’t know how to deal with you, I’m not a proctologist.
[Nadine] When they made you, they broke the mold – and beat up the mold maker.
Nadine works for the state prison system. Her specialty is putting down riots.
Knowing Hans’ lack of verbal talent I foolishly bet him that he couldn’t pick up Nadine. Naturally enough Hans went over to her and, without saying a word, lifted Nadine over his head. Nadine shrieked “What are you doing?” “I pick tings up an put dem down” replied Hans. Nadine started slinging put-downs at Hans, but every time he replied “I pick tings up an put dem down.”
After about an hour of this Nadine finally said “Please! Put me down!” Hans gently put her back on the floor, and then said “Will you dance with me?”
It was like a broomstick dancing with a beach ball. Afterwards I heard Nadine say “Wow! I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows till you come home.”
Next thing you know, I see Hans drive off with Nadine in his pick-up truck. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I’ve since run into them at several parties. Hans is always being invited to parties. He’s always picking up everyone’s spirits, and occasionally he’ll pick up the tab, too. Nadine sometimes gets jealous ‘cause he picks up girls without even trying!
But they always leave together. I think Nadine is showing Hans how to put down roots.
There is more to Hans and Nadine than shows in this story. For instance, Hans’ pick-up truck has a broken gas gauge, so he’s always running out of gas and has to carry the truck to get more. He lives in a house full of animals (he’s always picking up strays). His parents had a hard time teaching him to talk, but Nadine is teaching him two-syllable words. They have an interesting time when they get married and start to raise a family. And so on.
Having well developed characters leads to good stories, don’t you think?