How to Develop Characters Using Degrees of Intensity

1 Jun
John Jodzio is the author of the new collection Knockout, which includes the story "Lily and Annabelle."

John Jodzio is the author of the new collection Knockout, which includes the story “Lily and Annabelle.”

Most of us have had the experience of liking something (ice cream, for instance) and then experiencing something new (say, gelato) and thinking, “Whoa! I like this so much more.” The opposite can also happen: you hate something and then discover something that you detest even more. These degrees of liking or disliking reveal a lot about our tastes and personalities, and they’re a great way to develop characters.

John Jodzio uses such degrees of intensity masterfully in his story “Lily and Annabelle.” It was first published in Austin Review and is included in his new collection Knockout.

How the Story Works

The story is about two girls, Lily and Annabelle, whose parents have recently separated, an event which leads to this paragraph:

Their dad has been homeschooling the two of them, so the next morning, their mom drives them back to Longwater Community School. Their mom hates Longwater. She hates all the teachers there. She hates the curriculum. She especially hates the principal. Last year she drove over to the principal’s house in the middle of the night and dumped a bucket of red paint onto the hood of the principal’s car. Their mom believes that there’s asbestos in the classroom ceiling tiles even though the principal showed her the paperwork that said all the asbestos in the building was disposed of ten years ago. Their mom’s hatred of Longwater doesn’t matter anymore, it’s been dumped by her anger at their dad. She’s bringing the girls back to Longwater for revenge. She’s re-enrolling them there because their father hates the school even more than she does.

The paragraph is straightforward in its structure:

  • Statement of action, based on a decision made by a character
  • Statement of feeling, in this case hatred
  • Description of the intensity of that feeling
  • Revelation of a feeling that is stronger than the first one—that, in the words of the story, trumps the first feeling.
  • Explanation of how this new feeling explains the action from the beginning of the paragraph.

This is a really useful strategy because it reveals something the mother feels strongly about but also something that can make her act in a way that is contrary to that strong feeling. It’s a version of that old game, “How much  money would it take for you to ____?” The answer can reveal a lot and, of course, create tension.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s develop character using varying intensities of feeling, with “Lily and Annabelle” by John Jodzio as a model:

  1. Find something that your character feels strongly about. It doesn’t really matter what it is. You’re aiming for surprise—if not at the subject, then at the intensity of the character’s feeling about it. Try answering the question, “You know what I really love/can’t stand?”
  2. Describe how strong that feeling is. This is the fun part, in stories as in life. We often enjoy hearing people describe something they adore or loathe, the way they gush or rant. Let your character go on too long about the thing they that drives them crazy.
  3. Find something that trumps that evokes an even more intense emotion—that trumps the first feeling. It can be related or not. The relationship between the two things can be temporary or permanent. Try answering this question, “But you know what I really really love/can’t stand?” Or finishing this sentence: “I thought that was great/bad, but then I found out about ____.”
  4. Let the character act on this discovery. As with all stories, action is the key to narrative. Once your character learns of something he/she hates or loves even more, then what? You can try going in a couple of directions. In one, the character acts contrary to her own preference (as the mother does). In another, the character gives up something he loves or embraces something he hates. In both, the characters are acting in a way that will probably surprise the people around them. That surprise can create drama.

The goal is to reveal nuances of character and kickstart narrative by finding out what characters love or hate to a degree that surprises even themselves.

Good luck.

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One Response to “How to Develop Characters Using Degrees of Intensity”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with John Jodzio | Read to Write Stories - June 2, 2016

    […] To read an exercise on building character based on Jodzio’s story “Lily and Annabelle,” click here. […]

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