Someone asked why and how I distinguish between character and characterization. The why: because relying on appearance only as a tool creates two-dimensional characters. Complexity is in the contradictions, and the harmony between appearance and action. It’s in the interaction with other characters and environment. (yes, sometimes an appearance can be a both; such as when the action is choosing an appearance such as an external representation of character, cars, clothes, jobs, etc.)
Characteristic = appearance
Character = action, non-action, choice, objectives, morality
Character Study from the Dory:
“Bob” is a regular to breakfast two to three times a week. He’s mid-late eighties, with hearing aids, a green velveteen track suit, and wears Polo cologne (and by wears, I mean, bathes in it). He has a plaid cap, and orthopedic black shoes, and sits at the same table every time, unless it’s occupied, in which case he sits at his backup table.
He lays out two napkins, one for the English muffin “extra crispy” that he’ll order, and one for the pills he needs to take, and a place to rest his knife. He then sorts through the jelly holders, looking for orange marmalade. If his table is out, he’ll walk to each table, dipping through the jelly holders until he can find three orange marmalades and returns them to his spare napkin at the corner table. (If I have time, I try to restock his favorite table with extra marmalades)
I usually have coffee to him before he sits to prevent him from yelling out across the room. Since he’s partially deaf, he yells loud enough to wake the dead, even when you’re a foot away.
Me: (setting down coffee, a spare napkin so the coffee spoon doesn’t touch the table or he’ll glare, and a water for his pills or he’ll yell across the room for it. It all has to come out at the same time, even if my hands are full, or he’ll think I forgot something and holler for it.) Good morning, Bob. Do you want a Denver omelet with no cheese, and a side of salsa today? English muffin extra crispy? (My eyes water from the cologne. I try to hold my breath to wait for his very loud reply.)
Bob: I WANT A DENVER OMELETTE. NO CHEESE. DON’T YOU DARE PUT CHEESE ON MY OMLETTE. AND I WANT AN ENGLISH MUFFIN THAT’S EXTRA CRISPY. AND I NEED SOME SALSA, TOO. DON’T COME BACK WITHOUT MY SALSA.
Me: Okydokie, will do.
It’s taken months for us to get this far in our server/patron dynamic. The early days included a lot of loud yelling from across the room as he ordered things he thought of, or that I forgot. He consistently yells with his mouth full, which often leads to food spraying or coughing fits. I wait until he’s settled in before I return to refill his coffee and keep his water full.
It took several visits for me to realize he yells because he can’t hear himself. Several more visits for me to really appreciate he’s one of the patrons who consistently says “thank you” and tries to look at me when he’s talking. Many patrons order breakfast while looking at their phones, or flinch slightly when come by to fill their coffee, as though I’m imposing on their far away thoughts.
“Bob” always looks up. He always says thank you. He spreads his food out on napkins to keep the breakfast parts from touching. If other regulars are in, he makes time to speak with them and catch up, loudly, so the whole restaurant knows everything he’s saying—there are no secrets when Bob is in the building.
Me: (dropping off his ticket) Do you want a to-go cup for your coffee?
Bob: LISTEN, I’M GONNA NEED A TO GO CUP FOR MY COFFEE. BRING ME A CUP WITH A LID I CAN TAKE.
Me: Sure thing.
Bob: THAT’S GOOD. THANK YOU.
I put extra coffee in his to-go, and make sure I bring an extra spoon, in case I bussed his table while he was talking to other regulars. He’ll add half a dispenser of sugar to the cup, and pay his ticket.
If he’s still at his table when I return the change, he always grabs my arm.
Bob: HERE, HON. THIS IS FOR YOU. YOU TAKE THIS OKAY. ITS FOR YOU.
Me: Thanks, I really appreciate that.
I accept my tip while I’m standing next to him, or he’ll yell from across the room that I need to come get it so he can hand it to me personally. Usually two dollars. The only time he’ll leave it and go is if I have several table or look busy.
When he leaves he always says goodbye, waves and yells, “YOU HAVE A GOOD DAY, NOW.”
Me: You, too, Bob. Thank you!
Breaking down the contradiction in character expectations, a man who yells, is not always angry. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d know if Bob were ever truly angry unless he said so. I can pick up micro gestures in his eyes ticks when he’s irritated (his English muffin touched his salsa), or annoyed (out of marmalade), but because he speaks at the same decibel for all things, I would have no idea if we were raising his voice.
Despite his penchant for yelling with his mouth full, is in in fact, one of my most mannerly patrons. He says, thank you. He often picks up the tab for the elderly woman who dines as a regular at the same time. He makes time to visit with locals. He always tips, and always says goodbye. He tries to engage with me, I assume, to humanize our interaction, despite the oddities—which I can say is one of the nicest things about him. He makes an effort to humanize.
Outside Scope: When I watch other patrons, usually non-locals who are dining at the same time as Bob. I watch them trying to puzzle him out. Some people are offended when he yells to me across the room “MORE COFFEE” or “YOU FORGOT MY WATER”. I can tell they’re worried for me, or think he’s being rude.
Maybe he is, but I don’t think of it that way.
Servers can’t afford to take a whole lot personally. At least once or twice a shift you’re going to get someone that rubs you wrong—it’s the craps table of service. Sure, you get one that tips you over the edge once in a while, but the truth is, I do the same to some of them from time to time.
It all balances out in the wash.
A hermit interacting with humans is a tricky business on the best of days. So no, I don’t take Bob personal, he’s just a man. He just wants food and a place to feel safe so he can enjoy a meal and see his friends. And I’ve come to really adore him over the last few months. I adore his strange brand of humor, his need to sperate all his food, to put his coffee at two o’clock on the table and his pills and water at 10.
I’ve mastered the habit of holding my breath from the choking Polo burn on day’s he’s freshly shaved. And remembering to carrying everything out in one trip to avoid Bob disturbing other diners.
In the grand scheme of character study, it’s not entirely fair to study a character without noting the impact they have on me as well. While I use this job as a position to study humans, nothing happens in a vacuum. At least a portion of Bob’s characteristics are a direct result of my interaction with him, and judging it without accounting for that leaves part of the story untold.
At any rate, this is just a glimpse into the world of some of the story and character studies I work on while I’m at the diner.