Sunday, 29 March 2015

Cloth dolls and character development.

Life, in my tiny patch of Africa, is never dull.

A couple of months ago, I had coffee with a friend who runs a play-therapy group for abused and abandoned children. Laugh out loud, I should have known something was up when she ordered a large slice of chocolate cake for me. (If you want to win me over to something, cake needs to be involved.) I was forking up the last mouthful when she delivered her pitch.

She needed cloth dolls for the play-therapy group and, since I sew, would I be willing to make a few? Now, despite having three daughters (all grown up) and having made countless outfits for Cabbage Patch, First Love and Barbie et al during those halcyon pre-teen years, I’d never made a cloth doll. So, of course, I said ‘yes’. (It was the cake talking!)

Let me tell you, this whole cloth doll making business is not nearly as simple as you might imagine. By the time my hubby came home I’d downloaded and printed a heap of free patterns from the net. He stared at the sheets of outlined limbs, torsos and cut-on-fold half-heads. “Working on a new murder mystery, are you?” Funny man! I think I’m going to sell him on e-bay. But that wasn’t the worst of it.

 My daughter, a graphic designer, stopped by two days later. I showed her the first completed doll and asked for her artistic opinion. The side of her face twitched as if she were chewing on a sour nut, she blinked several times and then proceeded to give me feedback that included the words ‘Chernobyl’ and ‘baby’ in the same sentence. Shock-horror. But I have to admit, it did look like a teeny humanoid thing that had evolved without the benefit of either gravity or calcium. Sigh.

A lot of re-drafting and pattern-tweaking later, a doll emerged that I thought a small child might like – if he or she were not too picky. Stitching limbs together, sewing on faces and endeavoring to make each one an individual, got me thinking.
What lies behind that bland smile?

This is not unlike creating characters for a story. You start out with an idea of who these people in your story are and then proceed to ‘flesh’ them out. But, like a cloth doll, once you’ve got all the parts attached, you’ve still only got a flat, two dimensional character. This is where I went wrong in my first novel. Oh, my characters had personalities and motives for their behavior but they lacked substance – the hidden depth that makes a character intriguing and memorable and who lingers long after you’ve finished the book. Mine were little more than cloth dolls without the stuffing to hold them up.

In his excellent article, David Mesick* describes this need for characters to have hidden depths. (‘3 Things that will make your characters deeper.’) Mesick states these as being a world view, a dream and a secret. I think he’s right. These elements will definitely contribute to the making of a realistic, believable character. With regards to the world view, I’ve added a fourth element, drawn from Thomas Anthony Harris’ book, I’m Okay, You’re Okay. It’s what the author refers to as ‘the four Life Positions’. A life position is, perhaps, a little simpler than the complexity of a world view and consists of four basic positions from which an individual interacts with others.

The first life position - I’m not okay, you’re okay – portrays the individual who feels inferior to those around him. How that manifests in his interactions with others becomes part of your character’s unique persona and whether or not your readers will love him or hate him.
A character with the second position – I’m not okay, you’re not okay – is the quintessential pessimist for whom the glass is always half empty. I’m reminded of many fictional ‘defective’ detectives who’ve been sketched along these lines and, far from being a bore to read, their innate negativity can be a wonderful counterpoint to other characters in the story. 

The third position – I’m okay, you’re not okay – often portrays the utterly arrogant and unlikeable character whose profound sense of superiority can provoke the sincere desire to knock him down a peg or two. But that doesn’t mean your readers need to despise him. I can’t help thinking here of Harlan Coben’s Windsor Horne Lockwood III, arrogance personified but very, very funny.
The fourth, and possibly the least interesting life position, from a character development point of view – I’m okay, you’re okay – is the generally well-adjusted, respectful, affable type that generally gets on well with everyone else. You may be happy for your daughter to marry him but is he going to make fascinating reading? Perhaps, if you give him a deep, dark secret and some interesting methods of hiding it.

Once your character has a life position, it permeates everything he says or does and it will take a life altering event to cause that to change. But your protagonist must change. He must grow and develop as the story progresses and emerge at the end a better, wiser soul. What better way to achieves this than to facilitate the shift from one life position to another? The intense pressure to solve the mystery, rescue the girl, find the holy grail, save the world, or whatever mission your protagonist is on, should be this catalyst for change. As a reader, I find it satisfying when the protagonist has achieved some personal growth, and as a writer, I work hard to create it.
Using these life positions has helped me give my characters more ‘stuffing’, plumped them out a bit and added a set of core beliefs which, I hope, will make them more memorable. It certainly has made them easier to create and they practically write themselves. A lot like making cloth dolls, only simpler.

Disclaimer: No dolls were harmed in the making of this blog. In fact, after some brief counseling, they were handed over to the kiddies, where they will possibly do some good.




  1. Totally fun to read! I hope those dolls keep their murderous past behind them!

  2. Ha! Those dolls are going to need to keep their wits about them if they're going to survive being played with by 3 - 4 year-olds. :)