For the love of characters

When I was in college, I worked at a resort hotel – a rugged place in the country that rented out condos owned by wealthy tennis players.  It was an easy job and I was afforded large swaths of time perfect for studying.

At the end of my shift most nights, a stout old German woman named Senta would take over for the night audit.  Senta walked slightly hunched over, and her stern, hard-angled face was softened only by her animated voice and the sweet spirit in her eyes.

She was a warm comfort at the end of every night, a grounded part of my routine.  But I didn’t appreciate her fully, until one night, when Senta told me something about herself that changed the way I saw her from that point on.

pistolpacking_custom-277eaefa7afa78dd204296b050abad153816b636-s4She had arranged to come in early for her shift, cutting mine short by two hours.  I had made plans with some friends for my early night off, and had organized the desk, completed the necessary paperwork, and was ready to cut out as soon as she arrived.

The front door always flew open with a clattering force when Senta came through it, making her entrance audible and familiar. And that night, the glass door rocked with such exaction, I was surprised it didn’t shatter when it collided with the doorstop.

As the woman set her oversized bag in the office and removed her coat, I relayed to her the information I’d added to post-it notes throughout the evening: the plumbing in #206 is acting up, I’ve asked maintenance to look at it first thing in the morning; #125 has called five times, there may or may not be a raccoon on their roof; the Johnsons are playing a match on the indoor court, they have it reserved until midnight.

But Senta wasn’t paying attention.  She seemed distracted, arranging paperwork on the desk, pulling out her thermos of coffee.  She moved her coat three times before deciding it was safest draped across the back of the desk chair.

It then occurred to me I was in such a hurry to get out that night, I hadn’t attempted to make any small talk with Senta.

“What are you doing with your extra two hours in the morning?”  When I asked the question, the woman finally looked over at me.

“Hunting,” she said, her stern face lighting up as she said the words.

I smiled as I pictured the old woman hunched over, lurking through the woods.  With a shotgun.

“You hunt, Senta?”

She beamed at me.

“I love it,” she said, her eyes glazing over with joy.

My own family never got into the hunting tradition, but it’s hard to grow up in Texas without recognizing hunting season when it arrives.  It’s not uncommon to see men – or even young boys – walking around in full-on winter camouflage, or to hear hunting stories retold at the checkout counter at the grocery store.  These men seem to flock together, as if called by their need to shoot things.

And I never really paid much attention to them.  They were just a part of the scenery, with their big loud trucks and ugly green jackets.

But when this sweet, broken old woman started talking excitedly about hunting, my interest was suddenly stirred.  She was not what I considered part of the hunting season landscape.  I don’t know what I imagined her hobbies to be – knitting, maybe? Canasta?

We often talked about books, so I knew she was educated and well-read.  But beyond that, I hadn’t taken the time to get to know her, to find out what interested her.

“What are you thinking,” I said, “when you look down the barrel at the animal you are about to shoot?”

I wasn’t asking to be PETA-style annoying. I was honestly interested in her thought process at that moment.  Because I certainly didn’t think I could pull the trigger and end the life of an animal.  I couldn’t risk looking it in the eye.

Senta laughed at my question.  She held her hands up, one near her chin, the other stretched out before her, as if she were holding tight to the barrel of a gun.  She leaned her head down toward her imaginary gun and squinted one eye.

“I’m thinking,” she said, squeezing the trigger softly, “venison.”

I laughed and Senta smiled at me, turning toward her bag and pulling out a package of jerky.  I accepted a piece and turned to gather my things when Senta said something I will never forget.

“Anyway, it’s not that much harder than training to shoot Nazis.”

I never did meet up with my friends that night.  Instead, I sat on the front desk of a rural resort hotel, snacking on venison jerky and listening to Senta’s war stories.

The Johnsons returned the key from the indoor tennis court and hugged Senta like an old friend, asking after her husband’s health.  Condo #125 called again about the raccoon that may or may not have been on their roof.  Senta joked about going over to shoot it, but her gun was at home, safe in its case, ready to hunt bucks the next morning.

And interlaced through these mundane happenings, Senta told me about the war.  And I discovered that this old woman I saw every day, who walked with a hunch in her back, used to fly planes into war-torn Germany.  And she was truly disappointed that she never got to parachute into the war itself, because women weren’t allowed at the time.

She and her friend Maude jumped out of planes every chance they got during training.

“There is no feeling in the world like jumping out of a plane, your best friend by your side, falling into who knows what situation,” she said.  “That’s when you know you are truly alive.”

When she spoke of the war, her chest filled with air, and her hunched back straightened. Then, her eyes filled with tears when she talked about holding Maude’s hand as she died the year before, in a small dark hospital room in New Jersey.

After the war, Senta moved back to Texas and fell in love with her husband, a sweet, slightly rounded man who loved to cook.  She blushed when she talked about him.  And it made my stomach throb with warmth.

I was thinking of Senta today.  Because I’m in the creation process of my second novel, and I am crafting new characters.  And when I get stuck, I’m inspired by Senta.  Because what made her so interesting – what made me sit on the front counter eating jerky and listening to her talk half the night – were the unexpected layers of her personality.

Real people are multidimensional.  And characters should be too.  Not every protagonist has to be wholesome and innocent.  Not every antagonist should be purely malevolent.  (Even Hitler was a vegetarian and loved Charlie Chaplin films – not exactly traits you associate with unadulterated evil.)

Multi-faceted characters are more realistic.  They are tangible.  Relatable.  And frankly, more interesting.

Senta didn’t knit. Or play canasta. She hunted. She had seen the world. She’d flown planes; she’d jumped out of them.  She’d trained to shoot Nazis, but ended up shooting deer instead.  She beamed when she talked about the war, she cried when she remembered her old friend, and she blushed when schmoozing about the gentle man who cooked her dinner every night.

And I won’t ever forget her.

And that, my friends, is something to strive for in characterization.

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9 Comments

  1. Great post about how to create believable characters by taking inspiration from life and how every human has many, often contradictory layers. I loved: “I’m thinking,” she said, squeezing the trigger softly, “venison.”!!

    Reply
    • Kim

       /  February 4, 2013

      Thanks for reading Gabriela! The real world has such texture, it’s a shame not to capture it.

      Reply
  2. This is an amazing, inspirational, humourous story. Thanks for posting it!

    Lily

    Reply
    • Kim

       /  February 4, 2013

      Thanks Lily! Interestingly, one of the main characters in the new book is named Lily. I’m presently enjoying writing her layers, and discovering what she’ll do next.

      Reply
      • That is cool! Lily may just be my nickname, but I am more used to hearing it than anything else

  3. nbw8

     /  February 4, 2013

    Kim, what an engaging post! A great point to remember when writing, yes, but completely entertaining, too. I feel like I know Senta, now. Amazing job!

    Reply
    • Kim

       /  February 4, 2013

      Thanks! Just read your recent post too. You are becoming quite the blogger, my friend.

      Reply
  4. cad

     /  February 6, 2013

    You know, hitler didn’t drink either. I always wondered…maybe what hitler really needed in life was a good ass drink to chill out!

    I love people like Senta. She sounds like amazing woman.

    Reply
    • Kim

       /  February 7, 2013

      Right, someone should’ve gotten that man a tequila shot! Thanks for the retweet, cad!

      Reply

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