The secret life of the alphabet.

December 7, 2014 § 2 Comments


I spend most days creating characters out of words—which is pretty abstract.

Even more abstract are the words themselves, figments of the collective imagination of a set of symbols called the alphabet.

Each letter is translated to sound in the mind, but a letter also exists in its own right as a shape on the page, a shape with an attitude, a personality.

Take A for instance. A is confrontational. Note the wide stance, the arms crossed on the chest. A is adamant, stubborn and tough. Being a writer who struggles with confrontations I’d diffuse A’s anger by bringing B into the scene.

B is that bosomy older woman who will hug the mad right out of anyone, even a hot head like A.

C shows up in my stories a lot. Open, receptive, a good listener. Having C in a story allows the writer to turn exposition into dialogue making critics less likely to ding them for loading up on exposition and backstory.

D is that dandy who thinks he’s all-that—note the straight back and the thrown out chest. Writing D I’d like to give him a secret fear, something to make him, if not likable at least more human, but I have a hard time getting past the smell of his cologne.

E is ambitious—darned determined about it too. See how those three lines run straight and parallel? But the superiority and drive of E would be a problem for a writer. E’s success would be a win for the odds-on favorite. Since fiction favors the underdog E makes a good antagonist.

F is better when searching for a protagonist. Determined, yes, reaching too, but balanced on that one skinny line? You know something is about to happen (we call that plot).

G offers refuge—perhaps G functions better as setting than character. G is the safe place a character retreats to.

Like A, H has a wide stance, but H is a fat and placid character. In the hands of a hack writer H is described as jolly and is often included only to provide comic relief. H would like to issue a challenge to all you so-called writers. H wants a turn at being the romantic lead—and please, no romantic comedies, that would be cheating.

I is the pencil-thin ingénue who will age into the brittle old woman who will fall and break a hip and, before pushing the Life Alert button, will wonder what the point of it all had been. This book will sell a scant few copies and be remaindered in three months.

J may resemble I, but that swizzle at the bottom makes all the difference. J doesn’t take itself seriously the way I does. J will grow old too, but with lots of memories, cats, and grandchildren.

K? Oh how I love K! K has both arms thrown up in the air. K is steppin’ out. K is a parade. K may not be the best main character, but if your protagonist needs a little lightening up, K is a great sidekick.

L is stretched up, looking around. When italicized L yearns. Like this: L. Feel it?

M is two characters, so paired they have become one, and their flight is upward—I see a happily ever after coming on folks.

N is half of M trying to go on after the death of the other half (after a long happy life together—“ever after” is a little boring for fiction). That extra line N has acquired is memory.

O is the great inscrutable. Everything held inside, the perimeter impenetrable. Unless, of course, you are the writer of O’s story. If you are you can lay siege to the inscrutable O by making O narrate the story in first person, or by going omniscient and walking into O’s head any time you please.

P is the character holding in the secret piece of information on which the story hinges. P is carrying it carefully, but you just know that sooner or later that secret will have to be set down—or dropped–usually very close to the words THE END.

Q is O with a drain. Usually reserved, Q will sometimes let it all out. This kind of withholding character is very appealing.  We know that sooner or later he’ll spill and we relish the wait. Note to writers: just make sure the spill is worth that wait.

R is the stranger who rides into town. Mobile—check out that stride—and carrying what he needs to get by. R is canny and quiet, but when R shows up you know change is coming.

S is slick, untrustworthy. In real life we try to avoid this fast talker, but in fiction duplicitousness comes in handy. The plot that depends on misunderstandings, lies and deceit requires an S.

T is the long sufferer. Atlas holding the weight of the world on his shoulders, the Irish immigrant woman scrubbing floors so her kids can have a better life. Although the very nature of T negates the possibility this character will be the change agent in a story, T can be the ballast that holds the story upright.

U is like a dog on its back, feet in the air, sun warming its belly. U is the carefree character who provides color by wearing his shirt inside-out or jumping in the public fountain to fish out the pennies.

V is what U could be if he quit being so lazy and so gosh-darned enchanted with life. V has a job, a mission, V is an arrow! Too bad it’s headed down.

W, like M is two characters so paired they have become one, but the plot arc for these two is a whole different story.  Because of their union they are going down, each the cause of the other’s impending tragedy.

X is the roadblock in the story. The character whose job it is to thwart. Without a thwarting character there would be no overcoming. And what would a story be without overcoming?

Y is the character who is barely tethered to day-to-day life. Y’s spirit is rising. Expect large, dense paragraphs in this character’s book and little action.

Z is the plot we all hope for. The reader knows for sure where it is going and is about to yawn and put the book down, when the plot zigs in a completely unexpected direction. Z  will keep the reader up long past bedtime, even though tomorrow is Monday.

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§ 2 Responses to The secret life of the alphabet.

  • craig reeder says:

    Wow! I don’t think anyone has ever done this before. You’ve populated and personified the whole alphabet. I’ll never look at words and letters the same again! And oh! that great inscrutable!!! you got me hooked on that letter!


  • KM Huber says:

    If it has been done before never as brilliantly–of that, I have no doubt. It is simply invaluable for writers and all the other human beings. Thank you for this, Adrian!


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