Posts Tagged ‘characterization’

Character Through Line

Sam Gamgee

Sean Astin as Sam Gamgee.

Can you describe your character’s essence or their raison d’etre, in a short phrase? How about Sam Gamgee’s “Some things are worth fighting for.” Or Scarlett O’Hara’s “I’ll never be hungry again!”

Often we think of our characters as being so complex we need a whole novel to flesh them out. And we probably do. But what do they want above all else? Read More…

Sleeping Hedgehog interview

slpg hedgehog 2

This week Camille Alexa reviewed A Thousand Perfect Things for Sleeping Hedgehog: A Journal of An Untraditional Nature, the sister publication to Green Man Review. She followed it up with an interview.

Check it out here, where I talk frankly about:

  • The line of characters waiting in the wing to grace or sabotage your story.
  • My terrifying swings of opinion on the subject of characterization.
  • My favorite characters.
  • Why you must go to the desert to write.
  • My theory of the short story.

Camille Alexa on my new novel:

“A Thousand Perfect Things, drew me along somewhat slowly at first, but partway through turned into one of those reading experiences you hate to leave, so you avoid work and skip dates and stay awake all night till you finish. I loved her heady mix of romance, history, action & adventure — a real mélange of both exotic and domestic flavors, blended like a fine imported tea.”


The contradition in character

In writing the novel, there is a difference between characterization and character.

Characterization is a list of attributes that describes your character, including how she looks, her skills, her physical capabilities, values and ingrained standards. These traits are the sort of things that we know about our acquaintances, for example. They are important for your story, but they are nonetheless superficial.

They do not define true character.

True character is the essence of the person. Character is the part that remains when the surface is peeled away. Read More…

Vicarious life

Why do we read fiction? I think this is an excellent question because the way we answer it for ourselves can inform how we create character.

Is it to improve ourselves, entertain our work-numbed minds, pass the time, complete a bucket list of classics (probably the most dismal answer in this list), infuse our lives with drama?


I like that last one. Robert J. Ray in his great book on writing, The Weekend Novelist, said that we read for drama. Our lives are often diminished versions of what we had hoped for. Fiction is an anecdote.

We long for excitement fused with meaning.

Novels, with their dramatic backgrounds or set ups or characters, provide us the fascination we lack in mundane life. Therefore we read for drama.

Still, something is lacking. I don’t think we’re quite there yet. Taking myself as my sole source of information, I admit that I do read for drama. But my motive is more personal than that.

What we really get from a novel

Perhaps I’m not typical, but I read to experience vicariously another person’s life. I do not want to just “watch” a drama. I am watching a drama, of course, but what I mean is that I do not want to be kept at arms’ length.

I want to experience the drama, and do so through the eyes of the major character.

If this is true for very many people, the implications are huge for the subject of characterization.

My thesis is that a major reason people read fiction is because they want a vicarious experience of life. 4-500 pages will do, thank you. I don’t need to escape myself for longer than that (and I would miss my husband and my cat terribly.) But when I pay $12.99 for my latest Kindle book (not that I think it’s fair to pay that much for an ebook–insert rant here–)  I do want to go somewhere and do something, or feel something, remarkable for my thirteen bucks.

Fiction delivers, and in surprising ways. Recent studies in neuroscience suggest that while we are reading our brains experience the story as though it were really happening.

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. (From Your Brain on Fiction, The New York Times.)

If this is the case (and brain scans of people reading suggest that it is true) then what do we learn about writing from this?


For one thing, from this research using brain scans we learn that the brain responds more powerfully to metaphors that involve sensory images such as “lizard skin hands” or “a brandy-tinged laugh” than purely visual figurative language. Well, writing teachers have been preaching sensory description for a long time. Suddenly, I am a believer.

Spending time in his head

But the real lesson I take away is this: My major character (MC) (and all my POV characters for that matter) must be someone the reader may find it desirable to be. Or at least live inside of during their reading hours.

You must get tired of my “ah ha” moments, dear Writing the World tribe. But honestly, this was another one of those.

I’ve been wondering as I read novels lately why I enjoy some major characters and others leave me flat, or even annoyed. A recent novel, e.g., had a spy out in the cold (not in the game anymore) who wanted to be back in. Fine so far. But he grew whiny about it. He admitted to himself that he wanted to seen as an important player. Instantly I am annoyed by him. Why? Just because he has a flaw? But that is such a smarmy flaw. He wants people to admire his expertise. Call me judgmental, but that character lost me.

Another novel by the same author has an average guy enter the spy trade using only his journalistic skills. He makes dumb mistakes of tradecraft. But that’s fine. I still would like to be like this guy, able to deduce and take on the powers of greed. I’m enjoying being in his head.

Then take all those novels with perfectly nice MCs with a few flaws, and all those specific traits like eye color, horoscope, and fear of snakes. Do I want to be their heads? Such characters are not aversive, but do they give a vicarious pleasure? Not if they bring nothing into the reader’s life that the reader would love to (safely) experience.

You say that you are delivering this experience with the memorable and dramatic plot? OK, I believe you, but if you are not also giving me a pleasurable point of view to ride into your story on, I’m going to view your plot through a smeared glass. I want this extra thing: the chance to be this remarkable person. Vicariously.

What makes a remarkable person? Here we may differ, but as a writer, you would do well to consider whether your MC is–in your own estimation–someone worth living with vicariously for a week or so. They may have qualities like ingenuity, determination, altruism or courage. Or–as the pundits often say when debating who we are going to vote for for president–someone you’d really enjoy watching a football game with.

It’s all in how you ask the question

So the take home insight this week is:

How can you make your major character someone who delivers a compelling viewpoint, a heightened experience that takes the reader away from their boring selves?

I’m not saying I know how to specifically do this. Only that we must drill down and find that MC, and when we think we’ve found him, ask the question one more time: Does he deliver a remarkable vicarious experience?






Writing past cliche

I hope you’re following the new BBC Sherlock Holmes series. There is so much to learn from this marvelous mash-up of the Arthur Conan Doyle classic stories.

Today’s post is focused on what I believe is one of the two best things about the series. There are many other strengths of this TV series, but the two best are: The update to 21st century with the technology (smart, seamless and fun); and characterization. So off we go on the subject of this post: characters and cliche.

I know I will offend die hard Jeremy Brett fans when I say that in my opinion Sherlock Holmes’s portrayal has usually been fun, but cliched. (I didn’t see the Robert Downey film, though.) Who needs deep character when the superficial one grabs our attention? (Archie Bunker in All In the Family is another example of a weird protagonist delivering big entertainment.) But Archie cloys after awhile, and Sherlock Holmes is always the same, manic genius, not even slightly nuanced. Why did Sherlock Holmes endure? I think it was because the outrageous character of Sherlock was perfectly suited to the endlessly inventive mysteries he was called upon to solve. So great storytelling, despite a character who cannot surprise us.

You can agree or not, but I beg you to look at the Cumberbatch/Freeman duo, and the way these characters move beyond the old constraints.

What constraints? This one especially: Dr. Watson is usually the faithful sidekick without a believable agenda of his own. In other words, he isn’t a real person, or at least not a very interesting one. Sherlock Holmes is self-involved and deranged, without the ability to relate to others. Infuriating, fascinating for a couple hours… but I sometimes grew weary of the schtick.

However, now we have an adaptation that brilliantly moves beyond this charming conceit to bring some depth to the Holmes/Watson relationship. In other words, we actually get to have a little emotional involvement with the characters. I already liked Sherlock Holmes stories. With this BBC series, I love them.

Because they moved beyond cliche to character.

Now, instead of being merely a prop for the main character, Holmes, Watson clearly wants a friendship with him. He doesn’t get it, but he clearly desires it. When Holmes is being especially abrasive, Watson can get angry; alternatively, he gets back at Holmes with a dismissive impatience. Just the right dose of push-back, without watering down the essential sidekick role. (And season two, by the way, is much better than season one.)

As for the Holmes character, this portrayal has Cumberbatch occasionally aware of his emotions. And the brilliant part? When he notices these emotions he tries very hard to squelch them–but we aren’t sure he succeeds.  At these moments we see Holmes as someone hiding behind the demented genius. Like Dr. Gregory House, we start rooting for him to become just a little more human. We know it isn’t going to happen, but it’s fun to see Cumberbatch play with this.

It draws me in even further than the lovely plots do.

But I’m a sucker for a little ambiguity and emotion.

Take a close look at season two, beginning with A Scandal in Belgravia and last Sunday’s The Hound of Baskerville. Watch the interactions between Cumberbatch and Freeman.

A brilliant reinvention.