How to Use a Single Detail to Create a Character

8 Oct
Anthony Abboreno's story "Filler" was published at American Short Fiction.

Anthony Abboreno’s story “Filler” was published at American Short Fiction.

When creating a character, we tend to think about the entirety of the character—asking questions like, who is this person, really—but sometimes all we need is one good detail.

Anthony Abboreno demonstrates how a single detail can be used to create a complex character in his story, “Filler.” You can read it now at American Short Fiction.

How the Story Works

The story is about a father and his daughter, who likes food. It’s a minor detail (and not, at first glance, a terrifically unusual one), but watch how Abboreno uses that detail to create not only a fine-lined portrait of the daughter but also a dynamic picture of the hopes and dreams of the father as well.

In this first paragraph, the detail is introduced:

“One of the many things that I love about my daughter is that she loves food. When she was three, when most children are at their pickiest, my wife and I were amazed by what she enjoyed. Soup with kale in it, breaded veal, snails covered in butter that we would pry from their shells with a hat pin, then arrange on a plate for her to eat with her pudgy hands. And most of all she loved lobster—which is an easy food to like, but still outré for a three-year-old. On nights when my wife and I would hire a babysitter to go out with friends, we would brag about our daughter’s eating habits.”

In the next paragraph, the detail gains an added dimension:

“She is a foodie, we would say: maybe she’ll be a chef. But the real issue was not whether she would be a chef, but the galaxy of other things that taste in food implied. She was going to be cultured and smart. She would never have to stand at the edges of a crowd and feel uncomfortable. She would always have something witty to say, and she would never be lonely, and neither would we.”

This passage does two things:

  1. It places the daughter (and the one key detail about her) in context. Lines like “she was three, when most children are at their pickiest” and “still outré for a three-year-old” essentially tell the reader why the detail is noteworthy: she’s not like other kids her age.
  2. It lets the father talk about what this detail about his daughter means to him. A line like “the real issue was not whether she would be a chef, but the galaxy of other things that taste in food implied” clues the reader into the father’s attitude toward his daughter but also toward life and the world in general. The reader learns that his greatest fear is that one day he’ll be lonely.

At some point, every story must set a stake in the ground: the characters are moving toward the stake or they’re moving away from it. In “Filler” the regret and love that the father expresses at the end only make sense if we know that his greatest fear is that he’ll end up an outcast from society. And we learn that about that fear through a discussion of the daughter’s love for food. That is how a single detail can create a character.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create two characters using the food paragraphs from “Filler” as a model:

  1. Choose two characters who know each other. They could be family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, or people who regularly run into each other at restaurants or bars or cafes or any of the social places in the world.
  2. Choose something for one of the characters to like. Or choose a behavior for that character to exhibit often. The behavior or preference can be something mundane like smiling a lot, tapping a foot, clicking a pen, clearing a throat, or liking movies or avocados or sunny days. In “Filler,” the daughter likes food.
  3. Place the character’s preference or behavior in context. Is the preference or behavior unusual or taken to an unusual degree?  In “Filler,” the daughter likes foods that other three-year-olds wouldn’t touch. Perhaps your character smiles more than most people or at unusual times. Perhaps the character adds avocado to every dish or only goes outside on sunny days or simply talks an unusual about her love of these things.
  4. Give examples of the preference or behavior. Let the reader “see” the character expressing the preference or behavior, In the first excerpted paragraph from “Filler,” we learn all the things that the daughter eats. So, in other words, flesh out the preference or behavior that you’ve created.
  5. Let the second character comment on the first character’s preference or behavior. This part is important: the comment shouldn’t be neutral. The comment should be judgmental (either positive or negative). So, in “Filler,” the father brags about his daughter’s love of food.
  6. Finally, let the second character explain or suggest what the first character’s preference or behavior means. In the real world, we do this all the time, making claims about other people’s personality or value system based on minor details about them. These claims often tell us more about ourselves than the other people. Good fiction achieves this same effect. So, let the second character talk in a judgmental and “knowing” way about the first character. See what comes out. It may surprise you.

Good luck and have fun.

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2 Responses to “How to Use a Single Detail to Create a Character”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with American Short Fiction Editor Adeena Reitberger | Read to Write Stories - October 12, 2013

    […] (To read Anthony Abboreno’s story “Filler” and an exercise based on the story’s character development, click here.) […]

  2. An Interview with Anthony Abboreno | Read to Write Stories - August 9, 2014

    […] (To read Abboreno’s story “Filler” and an exercise based on the story’s character development, click here.) […]

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