August 19, 2011

Take One Lump or Two?

Day five of Lerowen's challenge was on the least favorite of your own characters, and I gave the award to Marta because of how difficult I find her to write. However, since she is a necessary part of the plot, I am forced to overcome that and make myself acquainted with her lest she become flat and annoying. Every character who is mildly important to the plot must be just that - a character, an individual person with a life that readers can tell stretches before and beyond the scope of the novel itself. Sometimes this develops of its own accord. Sometimes (to twist Jack London's quote) we must go after it with a stick.

tea or coffee?

Difficult characters plague just about every writer, and there are a dozen ways to beat or coax them into submission; they do not, however, all work universally, so this is trial-and-error. The very first thing to do if you wish to get to know the character is to ask them an important question as soon as they drop by to visit: "Tea or coffee?" My tongue is not wholly in my cheek; it's amazing what such a small and seemingly inconsequential choice can say about a character. Tea and coffee illustrate two ends of a personality spectrum as surely as do the terms "introvert" and "extrovert," and they turn up more often in real life. I frequently hear people lovingly discussing the merits of particular coffee grounds and crying out in horror at the idea of drinking decaffeinated coffee, while others shrug and say, "Coffee's all very well, but tea is such a homey thing. I must have my tea." An illustration that comes very easily to me would be the two main characters of Wordcrafter, who are opposites on this point as on so many others.

Justin: Justin is the embodiment of tea, really. He is withdrawn, shy, and generally sedate, finding comfort within himself rather than from the people around him. He's the sort of steady chap who will gladly sit by you through a rainy day and need nothing for himself, the sort who can comfort and encourage in any situation.

Ethan: Ethan's coffee. He tried this whole "tea" thing and thought it a very strange, watery concoction, but the smooth, bitter strength of coffee had him from the first. Ethan is more brilliant and assertive than Justin, confident and easy and perhaps a little proud. He is more striking, or, for lack of a better term, more flavorful. When you want someone to wake you up and dazzle you, you head for Ethan.

These are extremes, but they serve to make the point of the powerful indicator a choice between tea and coffee can be. So invite your character in, put him or her at the kitchen table, and ask the first question: "Tea or coffee?"

take one lump or two?

The kettle's whistling or the coffee is percolating, and you've brought out the sugar cubes and the cream. But there are half-a-dozen ways a person can take their tea or coffee, and depending on taste buds and personality, a character could take theirs black or with cream, with one lump of sugar or two (or three!), with honey mixed in or with a sprig of mint on top. Jenny's character Rhodri, for instance, takes his tea black and could not be induced to take it any other way. If forced to take tea my character Tip would likely also have it black, but he would prefer straight, strong, black-as-a-bat's-wing coffee. That's the way he is: plain and blunt, lacking any frills or tact. Charlie Bent would have tea with two sugar lumps...and, maybe, if you turned your back long enough (but watched him in the side of a tea pot), he would take another and eat it plain. And that's the way he is: smooth and easy, the perfect gentleman while you watch him, but with his own quirks that he can't quite resist when your back is to him.

How a person drinks his coffee or tea is as significant as which he drinks. It makes a world of difference whether he asks for tea or whether he chooses coffee, and then the cream and sugar provide some details for his personality. To say that Ethan is a coffee-person is not quite enough; does he take it black? No, he takes it with cream to make it go down easier. Justin likes his tea without milk so that it stays clear and amber, but he puts in just a little sugar after it has cooled so that he can watch the beads in the bottom of the cup. These are the little things, not necessarily important if you take them by themselves, but offering further glimpses into the personality of the character if you look hard enough.

Careful observation, my dear Watson, is everything.


  1. "It's a clue!"

    "No, Watson, it's a jar of jam."

    Of course, there have to be scones involved, if we're having tea. And coffee-cake for the coffee-drinkers. "What a mercy I thought of bringing the bread-knife."

    This whole post is delicious. I was daft and didn't realize it myself that I run characters through the "tea or coffee" gamut. I should do it more often consciously, because it is fun as well as informative.

    "Well, I'll have the chicken then."

  2. This post was originally going to be about interviewing characters, what kinds of questions should be answered, etc., but after I started it off with the "Tea or coffee?" question I thought I might as well run with it. In keeping with the absolutely adorable picture and all.

  3. What a wonderful idea! I never would have thought of this, but it is true--such little things can tell us so much about our characters!

    It appears I will be having a few character-friends over for tea...or coffee. :)

  4. Glad it inspired you! I think perhaps I'll do some similar posts later on, just to offer ideas for the difficult business of getting to know characters.

  5. This is sheer genius!1 I am going to have to ask my characters this from now on.
    For instance; I can NOT take coffee without cream and agave. Absolutely CANNOT. I'm the same way with tea - black tea with cream and agave. I do love my tea.
    ~ Mirriam

  6. Excellent! Now I'm wondering about my characters...

    I'm definitely a tea person. With milk. And sugar.

  7. I like coffee, but I can't drink it because of the caffeine. I also like tea (Twinings Ceylon is the best - that is to say, the only) with sugar.

  8. "Twinings Tea: the one, the only, and the best!"

    I've done this before with those of my characters who actually would drink tea or coffee, but I've never thought to apply it to those who (given their historical setting) are more likely to drink stronger stuff. After reading this, though, I think I must try.

    (Somewhat related: just the other day I discovered why, exactly, Merry doesn't take sugar with his tea. It's because he's so sweet that if he did employ sugar, the resulting levels of sweetness would do something drastic to his teacup and would probably also implode the universe. When I told this to my sister she only giggled. She hasn't met him yet, you see.)

    But I ramble.

    This is a brilliant idea, and I love it. You are a brilliant woman, and I love you. And I am most eagerly looking forward to the promised "similar posts".


  9. "Oh, Mellie, why don't you go on over and stick your head in the punch bowl. I don't think it has enough sugar in it."


    (Exit Jenny, after unabashed quote spam.)

  10. See, this is the difference between our characters: you ask yours, "Tea or coffee?" I ask mine, "Scotch or bourbon?"

    Or, if I really want to get to know them, "Stout, lager, porter, ale, scotch ale, strong ale, pale ale, India pale ale, saisson, barley wine, or lambic?"

    Also, Jenny quotes Hark! A Vagrant now. My work here is done.

  11. Megan - I'm afraid I laughed too at your Merry comment. He sounds absolutely adorable. And as for me being brilliant, I fear this post was largely inspired by the image I found for it; I figured that since the dragons had coffee, I'd better make the whole post have to do with the "Tea or coffee?" question. (But if I'm not brilliant, will you love me anyway?)

    Jonathan - I suppose a number of my characters would drink stronger stuff as well, but not being well-versed in alcohol myself, I couldn't do a post on personalities from their preferences in that quarter. You should get a blog and do it yourself; it would be fascinating to see what you came up with.

  12. Fascinating it might be, but I doubt I could sustain a blog simply on the concept. In fact, I doubt I could sustain a blog at all, without it degenerating into rants about the Braves' bullpen (though they've been pretty good lately) or whatever happens to be annoying me that day, and I'm pretty sure no one wants to read that.

    I have a limited amount of time and creative energy as it is, and with work about to get somewhat (and possibly very) more complicated in the next few weeks and with NaNo lurking around the corner (I'm already planning! Is that even legal?) I probably shouldn't bite off anything more. Besides, it's much easier to let you lot do all the hard work of writing up a topic and then toss in my own three cents (and maybe a hilarious webcomic).

  13. I sense a spirit of shirking. (Shirking? Shirkery?) But that's quite all right; my comment was meant as an expression of interest in reading your blog should you ever create one, rather than a demand that you make one right now.

    NaNo already? I fear I won't be done with White Sail's in time for NaNo, so I think that I'll have to forgo it this year.

  14. Argh, why aren't my hilarious webcomics linking? Fine, have some REM.

  15. I do not shirk. I might hedge, demur, or prevaricate, but shirk? Never. Not a shirker. But I'm wise enough (barely) to know my own limitations (sometimes).

    Hmm. Let's try a different comic.

  16. I have absolutely no idea what triggered that comic or what it had to do with the present post, but it was hilarious. To quote Lizzy Bennet, I was excessively diverted.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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