How To Write Interesting Characters, Featuring Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks became the first African American woman to have a statue dedicated in Washington DC. Park is an interesting character in our history, and, as with most historical characters, she has become mostly legend.

 My childhood history books portrayed her as a demure seamstress, the Daniel in the lion’s den of oppression. Indeed, the statue they unveiled in Washington show’s Parks clutching a purse, her knees tight together, looking out an invisible window at the approaching police.

Of course the truth is that Park was an activist long before that bus ride, and long after. That means she was probably loud and definitely not demure. Demure people tend to not break so many laws so obviously.

Even that fact isn’t as complicated as Rosa Parks, the person, is. Not even close. However, this is where most understanding of humans stops, and, as writers, this is often where the writing of characters stops. Too often, especially in genre fiction, a character is a public persona with a single complication. He’s a respected captain who gambles too much. He’s a holy man with a mistress on the side.

For me, Rosa Parks becomes really interesting when you learn about her hair. I can’t remember where I read this story, but it has imbedded itself in my head. Rosa Parks had a Native American ancestor. These genetics gave her long, soft dark brown hair. When in public she wrapped it around her head in a tight braid.

One evening a friend happened to see her take out the pins and her long, wavy hair fell almost to her waist. Parks explained that she hated it and would have cut it long ago, but her husband loved it so she kept it long for him. She carefully hid it away in public, tying it tightly to her scalp. It was her secret.

That story makes Parks a human for me, and shows her as strong and sentimental in a really wonderful way. It makes her a wife and a woman with insecurities who dealt who made a hundred little decisions every day.

In writing it is these details that add dimension and depth to your characters, so much more than revelations or outbursts or monologues. I recall Gary Braunbeck once suggested writing characters by how they poured their milk on their cereal in the morning. Do they just use a little because money is tight? Is money tight but they use a lot for the hell of it? Do they use water because fuck it? These details are key in writing good characters.

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