Reflecting on Characterization

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20160502_174723So I went for a walk, and spring is definitely springing. We had rain the other day, and as you can see, there were soggy triangles of puddles reflecting a cloud-mottled sky. The grass is here, and the leaves unfurling.

I wasn’t the only one; the park was packed with cyclists and joggers and strollers; the tennis courts squeaking under use; the softball diamonds sending up soft wafts of sand as players did drills.

But my idyllic interaction with the great outdoors darkened along with the sky when a man ran past me wearing shorts. I caught sight of the tattoo on his calf.

It was a lightning bolt.

Now, I don’t know this man, and I have no idea of his process in deciding on that particular tattoo, but as you may or may not know, a lightning bolt is often a symbol of the so-called white power movement.

On the other hand, maybe he felt it was a symbol of how fast he runs. Though he was really only running medium-fast, but that’s not the point.

It made me wonder about a person who — if indeed it was a loud’n’proud symbol of his contempt for anyone not like him — felt the need to put it out on display. My mind turned, as it often does, to writing.

Let’s be clear here. As I had no conversation with this man, and I had nothing more than a glimpse of his leg as he passed me on a running path, he’s really little more than a person I’ve constructed in my head. But if he were a character in one of my novels, I would find that tattoo far too much “tell” and not enough “show.” With one symbol, you put his essence right out there.

Sometimes you might want that. If you have a character with a bit part, and you want to establish him in few words, that’s a really quick and easy way to do it.

On the other hand, if he got that tattoo without understanding the larger possible implications, that’s a potential source of humor and conflict, which works for both minor and major characters.

But if it’s a character with substance and a penchant for racial superiority, take the longer route there, and let your readers notice the reflections.

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4 thoughts on “Reflecting on Characterization

  1. I did NOT know that about the lightning bolt!

    My first thought was “Harry Potter fan?” but then, being on his leg, more likely The Flash.

    In Dead Poet’s Society, whatsisname drew a lightning bolt on his chest to symbolize virility. I understand that connotation more than I can “white power”.

    • I don’t think it was virility, because leg, and it wasn’t filled in…I think it would be colored in for the Flash.

      So who knows. It may not have been the correct shape, but it seemed like such an odd choice! It would be weird in my neighborhood, though.

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