Archive for the ‘Characterization’ Category
If plot is the skeleton upon which the meat of your story hangs, then characters are surely the heart and soul.
Characterization is the art of presenting the people who populate your story.
Characterization is, in essence, nothing more — or less — than the depiction of motive (a word, incidentally, that comes from the Latin movere, meaning “to move or act”).
Thus it is primarily through actions and speech that a character’s traits are disclosed — which is why the act of compendiating in narrative passages a character’s thoughts and feelings do not alone develop character (though these passages do help, and telling, as opposed to merely showing, does have a legitimate place in storytelling).
The following, for example, illustrate the way in which even short passages of dialogue effectively develop a character:
“Why is it,” he said, one time, at the subway entrance, “I feel I’ve known you so many years?”
“Because I like you,” she said, “and I don’t want anything from you.”
(Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451)
Eddie: “All right, I’m giving three-to-one odds I’ll have this fag licking my balls inside of three minutes.”
(Charles Bukowski, Barfly)
Algernon: Good Heavens! Is marriage so demoralizing at that?
Lane: I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.
Algernon: (Languidly.) I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.
(Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act I, Scene I)
Just as in real life humans are evaluated by what we say and do, so in literature characters are also defined by what they say and do.
But what, finally, defines a character’s words and deeds?
What, for that matter, defines our words and deeds?
Only when we understand why a person does what she does do we begin to understand that person. And we understand someone well only when we understand the motives behind her actions.
“Human action is purposeful behavior,” said Ludwig von Mises, “and humans think not only for the sake of thinking but also in order to act.”
Yes: it is ultimately thought (or non-thought) that defines deeds, and thoughts, as we recently discussed, are shaped by words.
Literature is the artform of language. Literature is the artform of thought.
Character, both real and fictional, is determined by how thoroughly the author examines the thoughts that make the character act in the way she acts — and we are each the author of our own soul. The deeper the author delves into motive, the deeper we understand the character, and the more enriched our understanding of the human heart.
There’s a game that certain writers like to play, and it’s not called Hide-The-Salami (although that game is popular among certain writers as well, myself perhaps foremost among them). In the game I’m talking about, someone — anyone — comes up with a random list of words or components, and the writer is then asked to create a story using these words. For example:
A knife, a monk, an abandoned building, a beautiful woman, a strange light, a handwritten letter, a bloodstain.
For many writers — even experienced writers — the immediate temptation here is to cram all these elements into the very beginning, so that the mission is accomplished.
“In the abandoned building, illuminated by a strange light, a beautiful woman with a bloodstain on her blouse held a knife to a monk’s throat. The monk did not look at her but stared down at a handwritten letter, which the beautiful woman could not see.”
Almost invariably what ends up happening next is that the writer panics a little over where the story is going to go from there, and thus the writer begins to create more and ever more characters, and to add to the increasing complexity, until by the end of the game, the writer cannot keep everything she’s devised in her head. The new ideas, which in and of themselves may be perfectly sound, spin out of control, and the story loses cohesiveness.
The most edifying aspect of this game is streamlining.
What some writers who play this game have learned is that it’s best to sprinkle the elements all throughout the story.
A compelling story can be told with relatively few elements provided the writer creates a believable Situation, with a compelling conflict. Conflict is at the heart of storytelling, and plots, let us never forget, derive from characters under adversity.
Here, then, is how you create a setting:
One hour before nightfall, on a pink-and-blue evening in the third week of August, 2011 …
Here’s how you create a character:
a solitary man traveling on foot …
Here’s how you introduce a situation:
entered the small, tree-shadowed town of Clifton — an isolated village about which many rumors circulated.
Here’s how you introduce tension:
Several people from their windows and doors eyed the traveler with suspicion …
Here’s how you heighten that tension and begin your plot:
and yet one, a woman upon her doorstep, who had never laid eyes on the traveler before today, felt an icicle skewer her heart the instant she saw him — and saw also the strange and unmistakable key he wore on a chain around his neck.
Here’s how you further develop your character:
The traveler was a man of medium height, lean and lithe, thirty or perhaps thirty-five. He had wheat-colored hair cut high-and-tight, and there was in his posture a certain military mien, an excess of energy which set him apart.
Here’s how you further set your scene:
The day was dying. Wind went warmly about the grass. The village was silent.
Here’s how you introduce foreshadowing:
He passed by a small cinema the lights of which shed a crimson sheen over his hands and face.
Here’s how you introduce a new character, a potential conflict, a new paragraph:
Among those watching him was a strong-looking young man, alone and hatless, who stood half-hidden with the statuary, in the black shadows of the conifer trees. He and the traveler looked in some way alike, yet the man in the shadows was younger, and his face was charged with suffering.
Here’s how you intensify your plot and introduce dialogue:
Quickly the woman left her doorstep and, with a tremor of intent, approached the traveler.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said.
Here’s how you develop your main character through dialogue:
“Yes,” he said.
Here’s how you intensify your situation again and at the same time give the reader an idea of your novel’s theme (which in this abbreviated example is: superstition in an insular society):
At last her eyes went to the strange-looking key that he wore around his neck. She’d been avoiding it, but now that her eyes were upon it, she couldn’t look away. The key was very beautiful, entirely real, modern and yet somehow science-fictional, not at all as she’d been told. In its silver glint, she caught a quick reflection of the stone gargoyle perched on the building behind them. Her heart paused and then released a thunderous beat. A rill of sweat slid between her breasts. Unexpectedly, she felt a sexual surge shoot through her.
Here’s how you raise tension through dialogue:
“Time is running short,” she said. “Come with me.”
Here’s how you further develop your plot:
She said no more after that but turned and walked toward the cinema that stood burning with a hellish glow in the August twilight. The traveler followed.
She hadn’t noticed the man watching from the shadows.
But the traveler had recognized him instantly.
Establish your setting early on. Give us The When, The Where, The Weather — the overall tone. Is your story happy, soft, somber?
John Steinbeck does this so well in the beautiful opening of Of Mice and Men:
A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green. The water is warm too, for it has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight before reaching the narrow pool. On one side of the river the golden foothill slopes curve up to the strong and rocky Gabilan Mountains, but on the valley side the water is lined with trees — willows fresh and green with every spring, carrying in their lower leaf junctures the debris of the winter’s flooding; and sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs and branches that arch over the pool. On the sandy bank under the trees the leaves lie deep and so crisp that a lizard makes a great skittering if he runs among them. Rabbits come out of the brush to sit on the sand in the evening, and the damp flats are covered with the night tracks of ‘coons, and with the spreadpads of dogs from the ranches, and with the split-wedge tracks of deer that come to drink in the dark.
In the beginning, let us also see your main characters — or, at the very least, let us glimpse them, or hear about them in an intriguing way. For example:
“But at the last moment, she left him for a man no one knew, a dark-horse from nobody knew where, a man of great strength and strange habits…”
“See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt.”
In the beginning, show us your characters in the face of some adversity. (“Plots stem from characters under adversity,” wrote Crawford Kilian.) Show us your characters struggling.
Remember always: the greater the struggle, the better the plot.
Early on, differentiate for us the protagonist from the antagonist. Let us know in whom we’re to be emotionally invested. Which character is good? Which bad? For example:
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
Your hero — even if she’s an antihero — must be someone with whom we can identify, at least on some level. There must be good qualities in your protagonist, or qualities with which we can relate.
Conversely, your antagonist, who can indeed be remarkable and even admirable, must in some way be pitted against your protagonist. (A la Javert.)
In the beginning, give us a hint of your story’s Situation. Show us something of the nature of the struggle that is to come. Let us glimpse what’s at stake — as Nabokov does in the following excerpt, which is from the beginning of his book Laughter in the Dark:
Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.
This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling.
Finally, if your protagonist bleeds badly in the last chapter, have him cut himself in the beginning of your story. This is called foreshadowing.
Foreshadowing is effective and poetic.
Lastly, don’t feel as if you need to cram all this into your beginning. Think of it as a way to structure your beginning, so that it flows and gives you a method by which you tell your story.
In the previous post, I said that to create convincing characters, the writer must first understand what motivates the people she or he is creating.
This means that the writer must understand what moves the actions of his or her characters.
Plot is a sequence of purposeful conflicts that culminate in climax.
“If they aren’t in interesting situations, characters cannot be major characters, not even if everyone else is talking about them,” said P.G. Wodehouse.
When the writer understands what motivates the actions of his or her characters, the reader can then, in turn, discover what is the foundational motive and psychology of the characters.
This depth of characterization, achieved by means of good plotting, is what takes literature from mediocre to serious.
Characters in literature, just as humans in real life, can have conflicting motives. But even contradictions within the character must be consistent to the specific framework that the writer has created for that character. So that, for example, the reader doesn’t say “This is out of character: Hamlet [who incidentally possesses multitudinous contradictions] would never behave this way.”
Staying consistent — which is to say, integrating a character’s conflicting motives and desires — is simply part of creating realistic characters.
If Shakespeare were to have had Prince Hamlet express genuine love out-of-the-blue for his uncle Claudius, the reader would have been right to say “This is out of character, and Hamlet would never have done that. It is a flaw in the writing.”
Characterization is a presentation of the personality of the people who populate a story.
Characterization is primarily a depiction of motivation and motive. The reader must understand what makes the characters act in the way that those characters do.
It’s been said that one of the truest tests of good literature is when you can discuss the characters as if those characters are actual people: when you can psychologize over them, talk about their strengths, their gifts, their shortcomings, their personalities, their deeds, all as if these people are real.
To create such a character — which is to say, to create a truly convincing character — the writer must first understand what motivates the people he or she is creating. By that I mean, the writer must have a fully formed idea of what the character’s premises and personality are. After which, by means of the plot (i.e. the action, which includes each passage of dialogue), you proceed to present the character’s motives and (in turn) their personalities.
Know what motivates your characters.
One of Shakespeare’s greatest living admirers (and arguably the world’s best-read human being), the critic Harold Bloom (not to be confused, as he so often is, with that hack Howard Bloom), honestly believes that in creating so many convincing characters, Shakespeare went far in creating our modern-day conception of humanity itself. It is an incredible statement, and yet I, for one, won’t argue it. In Harold Bloom’s own words:
“Shakespeare, who at the least changed our ways of presenting human nature, if not human nature itself, does not portray himself anywhere in his plays.”
Even more interestingly, perhaps, Mr. Bloom goes on to say this:
If I could question any dead author, it would be Shakespeare, and I would not waste my seconds by asking the identity of the Dark Lady or the precisely nuanced elements of homoeroticism in the relationship with Southhampton (or another). Naively, I would blurt out: did it comfort you to have fashioned woman and men more real than living men and women? (Harold Bloom, Genius, p. 18).
[Note: I've updated this post and changed the dialogue example]
In Part 1 of this post, I mentioned that a fictional character is shaped by his or her words and actions, and that for this reason, plot and dialogue are the sine-qua-non of character development. The following, then, taken from an actual book (written in first person), is an example of how this is so:
I drove us to my trailer in Metairie.
“This is where you live?” she said.
That’s how it actually appears in the novel. Now read it this way:
I drove us to my trailer in Metairie.
“This is where you live?” she said.
It’s only a one-word difference, but note how much that one word changes your view of the character.
If plot is the skeleton — that vital framework upon which the rest of the body is built — then characters are the soul.
Characters are the reason we ultimately love or hate a story.
“I’m sick to death of the inarticulate hero,” said John Fowles. “To hell with the inarticulate.”
Characterization is in essence the depiction of those distinguishing characteristics that make a person individuated and distinct.
In real life, we are each defined by our actions and by what we say and do, and our actions are in turn defined by what we think. Thoughts shape actions.
In literature, that same basic thing is true: a character is shaped by his or her actions and words, and that is precisely why plot and dialogue are the sine-qua-non of character development.
But plot and dialogue are not the only tools we have at our disposal. Physical descriptions and narrative passages that tell the reader what the character is thinking are also important. Though neither of those two alone can completely flesh out a character, it is not true that you should never tell but always show. Narration exists for a reason.
Here, for example, is a short narrative description of one of the most unctuous and repugnant antagonists in all of literature: Pyotr Stepanovich, in the novel Demons, by Dostoevsky:
No one would call him bad-looking, but no one likes his face. His head is elongated towards the back and as if flattened on the sides, giving his face a sharp look. His forehead is high and narrow, but his features are small — eyes sharp, nose small and sharp, lips long and thin. The expression of his face is as if sickly, but it only seems so. He has a sort of dry crease on his cheeks and around his cheekbones, which makes him look as if he were recovering from a grave illness. And yet he is perfectly healthy and strong, and has never been ill.
He walks and moves hurriedly, and yet he is not hurrying anywhere. Nothing, it seems, can put him out of countenance; in any circumstance and in any society, he remains the same. There is great self-satisfaction in him, but he does not take the least note of himself.
He speaks rapidly, hurriedly, but at the same time self-confidently, and is never at a loss for words. His thoughts are calm, despite his hurried look, distinct and final — and that is especially noticeable. His enunciation is remarkably clear; his words spill out like big, uniform grains, always choice and always ready to be at your service. You like it at first, but later it will become repulsive, and precisely because of this all too clear enunciation, this string of every ready words, you somehow begin to imagine that the tongue in his mouth must be of some special form, somehow unusually long and thin, terribly red, and with an extremely sharp, constantly and involuntarily wriggling tip.
One page later in the same book, the reader is then treated to a narrative description of the protagonist — surely the damndest (anti)hero in all of literature:
But there are, it seems, such physiognomies as always, each time they appear, bring something new, which you have not noticed in them before, though you may have met them a hundred times previously. Apparently he was still the same as four years ago: as refined, as imposing, he entered as imposingly then, even almost as youthful. His faint smile was as officially benign and just as self-satisfied; his glance stern, thoughtful, and as if distracted…. Before, even though he had been considered a handsome man, his face had indeed “resembled a mask,” as certain vicious-tongue ladies of our society put it. Whereas now — now, I don’t know why, but he appeared to me, at very first sight, as decidedly, unquestionably handsome, so that it could in no way be said that his face resembled a mask. Was it because he had become a bit paler than before, and seemed to have lost some weight? Or was it perhaps some new thought that now shone in his eyes?
That, reader, is how you introduce with firepower your significant characters.