A Fear of Sea Monsters – Building Memorable Characters

One of the fundamentals when writing memorable characters is to know them well. The good, the bad, and the weird idiosyncracies that lift them out of the realm of the cardboard cut-out and make them stride across the page in glorious 3D. There are many ways to create a character from scratch, but I think the most interesting and unique character traits tend to show themselves in the context of everyday life (scene) and are often unexpected.

At a very basic level consider how people take their hot drinks. I have one friend that dips the teabag in and out of the hot water so quickly it barely gets wet.  Another puts such a tiny dash of milk, I invariably lose the skin off the roof of my mouth when she makes me tea. However the reason for that is I grew up on a dairy farm, and because our family has always taken our tea with a decent dollop of milk, I always work on the assumption that a hot drink isn’t really hot.  Another friend won’t drink tea at all – sacrilege – but will drive all around town hunting down the best coffee.  There are so many more variations on this theme – I’m sure you know your own cast of characters in real life.  But do you know how your own characters might react to something so simple?

If you’re looking for authentic character traits – just look around you.  What weird things do your friends do that is unique to them?  And more than the obvious like twirling their hair or biting their lip?  Rather than spill the beans on my friends I thought I’d tell you a few stories about my life that might get the idea across.  It’s all about my fear of sea monsters. How it came about.  And how it still impacts my life today.

When I was eight, I had a friend who lived directly across the road. One day when I was at her house, her dad gave me a crayfish wrapped in newspaper and told me to run home and give it to my dad.  The thing was ugly.  Its alien-like head stuck out of the top of the paper, and to my horror the only way I could carry it was to wrap my arms about it and hold it against my chest.  I can still remember Mr George telling me to “hurry up and whatever you do don’t drop it”!

So my eight year-old self ran across the road, and half way across the paper loosened up a bit and that creature started to move.  The moment was seared into my memory by a ginormous adrenalin rush. In fact I cannot tell you how terrified I was.  Too terrified even to scream.  That it might’ve still been alive hadn’t even crossed my mind.  But with Mr George’s admonition ringing in my ears I didn’t dare let go of it either.  Instead I ran as fast as my legs would carry me over to our house where I found my dad and dropped the moving crayfish on the table in front of him.

You know how athletes like to do their own weird victory dances?  Well I did something like that – but it was all about ridding myself of scaredy-cat juju.  It involved hopping about, shaking my hands and pulling a face like I’d just sucked on a lemon or found half a caterpillar in my salad.

And so the fear of sea-monsters (no I’m not the slightest bit melodramatic) was born.

Years later I went snorkelling with my friends at Goat Island – a marine reserve close to where I grew up.  I was mostly okay with the fish and was growing in confidence – exploring around the rocks and enjoying the marine life.  I’ve always liked a good nature documentary and was fancying myself as an adventurous sort when I spotted a whole heap of kina (a spiky sea urchin that looks a bit like a curled up hedgehog) on the sea floor.  I was just making a mental note to watch where I put my feet, when I realised the kina were moving.

Can you see the theme here?  Firstly I didn’t know they could move – I thought they were stationary – and it totally freaked me out.  However it is impossible to do the wigged-out-juju dance when you’re snorkelling and NOT wanting to put your feet down.  I sucked in a lungful of seawater and almost drowned trying to get back to shore. It was not pretty. Not even the slightest bit adventurous. Needless to say not something I’ve ever been tempted to do again.

Fast forward to this Saturday.  I still won’t go near a crayfish unless it’s been cooked or has been dismembered (which means definitely dead).  And the only water I will get into is a bath – or swimming pool where I can see the bottom. But we’d come back from a matinee and one of the children runs up to the house and says “Mum there are three hedgehogs on the front door step!”

Now our fearless cat often brings us gifts of leaves and old bones he’s scrounged from other people’s houses – such is his hunting prowess – so I was doubtful he’d be able to manage one hedgehog let alone three.  But sure enough on our front door mat were three of the biggest curled up hedgehogs I’d ever seen.  They were enormous.

Except they weren’t hedgehogs.

Some friends had been diving and had brought back some kina for us.  Now I personally don’t like kina (on many levels obviously) – but I thought my dad might.  He wasn’t home though – so my husband (lets face facts I wasn’t going anywhere near them) – jams the freakish balls into the fridge.

That night he went out and friend of mine came around to watch a movie with me.  However when I went to get some milk out of the fridge (to make us some very milky tea), one of the kina flew out and landed at my feet with a great prickly thud.  Cue shrieking, flapping and almost hitting the roof with fright.  I could not even look at it, let alone pick it up – and the miserable thing had leaked some sort of stinky sea-juice all over my fridge and into the vege-bin.

When my friend stopped laughing fit to burst – she picked up the offending creature and contained it once again in the fridge.  I told my husband later he was lucky she was there or he would have had to come home early.  I’m not joking either. Fortunately he is big enough and brave enough to deal, so after he had a good laugh at my expense, he removed the creatures to my parents house and cleaned the fridge.  Now that’s my idea of a hero!

So the point I’m making, is I will always act a certain way around weird looking sea creatures.  Your characters will no doubt have their own unique ways of responding to the world and certain things they will do consistently.  Inspiration is everywhere once you start looking.

So how about you?  What weird rituals do your characters have?  What scares them?  What is the most unexpected character trait you’ve observed in your characters or your own life?

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18 thoughts on “A Fear of Sea Monsters – Building Memorable Characters

  1. That was a great read. I do have a character who is afraid of water (her mother committed suicide by drowning). My “quirkiest” character to date is a very bad man. He is obsessed with whiteness, will eat only white food, use only white towels, the house interiors are white etc. Worst of all is his indecent obsession with his niece, who has albinism.

    1. Oh I like the whiteness thing – and that does sound especially creepy. Strangely I saw a reality tv show recently where one of the participants had a thing about black and white. Her whole house was black and white (including black toilet paper).

      My mother-in-law had a little saying she was fond of: “everyone is queer expect me and thee – and I have my doubts about thee…” (maybe she got wind of the sea-creature thing…).

  2. Eeeeek! You gave me the heebie jeebies! I’m glad you wrote this. I try to add quirks to my characters (tea made with kettle-squealing hot water and steeped for 5 minutes shows up frequently), but I often forget to add, er, less than rational but perhaps well founded fears or squeamishness. Thank you!

      1. lol Ask me why I don’t (and won’t) own a couch sometime. I think my fear of overstuffed furniture, while well founded, probably holds a record in the truly irrational category.

  3. Well thank you sooooo much for the kinas my dear. I was not best pleased with having them in my fridge either and made your father cover them completely. They remained there all night and as he doesn’t like them either, he took them to work to give to his mate this morning! I didn’t have to set eyes on the horrible things again!!!!!!

    1. Er, sorry about that Mum. I’m going to tell B’s workmates we’re going to pass next time… I hope Dad’s friend does like them because I really don’t want them back either! I still have the screaming heebie-jeebies thinking about it…

  4. A quick post-script: The kina did in fact find an appreciative palate, and will not be returning to my door. *cheers wildly*

    And my mother confirmed these kina were in fact freakishly large – maybe even the biggest kina in the world… Just sayin’.

  5. I have a friend who drinks soft drinks almost exclusively. He prefers a very full glass of ice before putting any of the beverage in. This contrasts nicely with me as I like little or no ice in my sodas. Neither of us drinks coffee or tea (I occasionally go for hot chocolate). When we go to a get together at a local restaurant for a “men’s breakfast” with men from our church the drink orders go coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee, Dr. Pepper, Diet Dr. Pepper. It makes for a nice scene once a month or so.

    As for my characters, the main one is rather serious. His primary foil is a somewhat lazy goofball and the other foil is a pompous, immature (but gradually improving) guy. They are all teenagers, so they all fit quite nicely in one of the stereotypical teenage roles.

  6. Love your sea monsters story 🙂 I wasn’t sure what you were getting at with this, but it’s a great post! I try hard to build my characters on details that show who they are to the reader. The main character in my WIP doesn’t talk much, which is actually a good writing challenge, since it’s his behaviour that has to show his personality.

  7. I have one like that in the 3rd book – and it is hard to really show him as a well-rounded character – especially as my real-life experience with the silent-but-actively-physical types is to never really get a good handle on them at all. I think one of the things I love about writing is it makes you pay attention to the details of life.

  8. Great post! It gave me a chuckle, because I could see myself doing the same thing. This helps to better understand what other writers say about people watching. I wrote a post on that once. But to make a long story short, this gives us something to look for, so I don’t feel like a stalker. ha!

    1. I know it’s a fine line isn’t it? Every few months I head into the city and people watch – I’ve seen some interesting characters – but I find it inspiring. I went in a month ago with my Mum and had an interesting discussion with her while we were sitting at a cafe at the railway station – about how you would carry a dead body if you were trying not to draw attention. It was all in the name of writing, but I hope noone was secretly listening to that conversation. It could have been bad out of context!

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