Sophomore year Bio, we had to know all the bones of the human body and all the foramen - openings in the bones that allow nerves, veins, arteries, and other fun bodily things to pass through and connect with other parts - on sight.
For the final, we had to know it all blind-folded. We would be presented with a trough of bones. Blindfolded, we'd pick out a bone and name it, identify left from right, proximal from distal, and identify any foramen that presented.
Maxilla - the bone that makes the underneath of the eye orbit, the front of your cheeks, and the top of your jaw, containing the sockets for all your upper teeth - holds the infra-orbital foramen, the little hole where sense nerves pass through. The Maxilla feels like a desert with two dried up lakes, I could press my thumbs into their beds; the divots, and eventual opening in the bone, under the eye, but before the protuberance of the upper jaw. It was almost easier to tell blindfolded, because I could feel each ridge and curve.
Likewise, the frontal bone of the skull has the unmistakable and parabolic swells that inform the eye-brow ridge. I aced the test save one bone: The clavicle. I could not tell the right from the left or which end was which (in this case, knowing the latter would mean knowing the former). Collar bones, if you were wondering, are forgettable twig like bones, about the length of a short hand, with a pleasing curve in the center and a protrusion at the end. They are hard to distinguish from one another. It must be worse on cats where the collar bones don't even attach to the skeleton. They just hang out in the muscle tissue like lilipads in still water.**
I kept thinking about how if I could have seen them, I'd have known how to tell them apart. But would I? Feeling each bone provoked more confidence than looking. Because, more than seeing, I had a certain familiarity with the bones. Hold one, and I knew all the protrusions and clefts. It got to the point that I could tell which were the bones I'd practiced (over and over) with and which were not. A small chip there, a smooth patch here.
So the point of all this (aside from I saw a woman on the subway this morning studying for a Bio test and I NAILED her flashcards) is that it suddenly reminded me of why I think certain characters feel like character sketches.
If you've ever had someone say that your characters feel "flat" or "one dimensional" ; that they're not fleshed out enough. I think it sort of means that you've seen them, but you're not really bone-level familiar with them yet. We see them, but don't know them like that.
Villains, particularly, for me, often seem under cooked. It's easy to see "bad," but why? how? And protagonists, I see what they're up to when you show me, but what's he or she like when he or she is not in that scene? For characters that could walk off the pages, you need to know more than just how they are in a scene, in a book. Do you ever see something and think "Oh man, my friend/mom/spouse etc... would love that?" It's not because they told you "I love this particular thing." It's because all the nuances and layers of their identity have demonstrated it to you. Who are these people when you're not writing them? When they go home for dinner? When they're alone and there's no story.
Barbara Poelle, at the 2012 thriller-fest, told readers "If you’re struggling with writing a character, write 20 things that the reader will never know about your character. These will naturally bleed into your writing and provide a richness even though you don’t share the detail"
Genius advice, I say. That richness comes from knowing your character outside of what can been seen in a moment.
** this is why cats have an unbound-by-physics way of fitting anywhere. As long as their head can fit, they can fit. Cats are ambassadors from other worlds and one day they'll explain everything to us.