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? What limitation do they always fear and fight against? What gives their lives meaning, in their own Altho
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
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
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? 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 diminish
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.
We hear a lot about making clear what the main character of a story wants. Desire leads to motive and thence to action. It’s a powerful catalyst for plot. But desire isn’t homogeneous. It has fluctuations. Desire weaves its various fluctuations differently in different characters. That’s why there’s a danger in taking “what a character wants” too much at face value, especially for stories where characterization greatly matters. I explored the idea of a character’s outright mi
You know that your major character is going to make or break your novel, so you’ve studied up. You’ve got a list of strengths and weaknesses, some defining quirks and maybe a back story to add credibility. Set to go, right? No. Because so far the characteristics aren’t related to the story. Great characters aren’t built up from features, they are crafted with an eye to dramatic functions. If you’re writing a story with even a smidgen of inner story (characterization) then you
Sometimes in stories what the major character wants is a big mistake. Not a mistake in storytelling terms, but in terms of what the character needs to learn. She firmly believes something is worth pursuing. But she learns that she is wrong. What she wants will be revealed as utterly false or superseded by a deeper, more urgent goal. In stories like these your basic story structure must be carefully handled so that you deliver a satisfying read, not a broken one. There are sev
Today I’m thinking about how the major character of a novel changes through the story. In other words, his or her character arc. Having the major character change through the story is one of the key ways an author knits plot to character. It is also a powerful tool to reveal character. But why, really, does a character have to change? Aren’t some characters fascinating enough without changing their spots? The answer is usually no. Static characters who repeat their same stren
Dialog in fiction is a proving ground for a writer. Here is where your ear for truth, your understanding of your characters, and your ability to convince us this scene is “real” comes to a head. Too often, however, we write dialog that fails to snap and sounds a bit forced. One of my favorite remedies for this problem is laying in something unspoken. Something is swimming under the surface of the conversation. It might be a minnow or a whale, but whether large or small, it is
Think of your favorite characters from recent books and film. Were they self-effacing and dependable? Did they wear beige and hate to tell a lie? I’m guessing not! Why is it then, that we’re writing these folks into our stories? I’m reading a book by a famous author who is not selling as well as he used to. His major character this time is rather bland. True, he has a rebellious streak. Yawn. It’s not enough. You have boring friends. Sorry. We may write bland characters beca
Today I’m putting down yet another book that I hoped would grip me in a dramatic embrace. Nope, it didn’t. I’m quitting on page 80. If the author hasn’t snared me by now, she never will. While there are a slew of reasons this heralded steampunk novel didn’t grab me, the most important is one that seems minor to many people, but is central to me: passion. The protagonist is quirky and courageous. But those qualities feel like trappings. The novel is tepid reading. I think the
Believable, empathetic characters are central to a novel. Oddly, though, they can get short-changed by writers. We know that readers look for characters they can relate to and root for. Then we deliver generic, oddly bland protagonists. Why? Generic or Genuine? I think it’s because writers bring an assumed empathy to their central characters. They imbue them with an unquestioned magnetism. Everything we know about driven, memorable people gets added to the psychological shopp
You’ve got your novel’s cast of characters, let’s say. You’ve carefully considered the central conflict between two characters.You’ve thought through who else hinders–and helps–your protagonist. Some of these may feature prominently, heading up subplots. If you’re inspired by Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, you may have discovered a character or two with dramatic archetype functions such as the mentor, threshold guardian, or herald. Fun stuff. More work lies ahead.
I think we need a new definition of the stereotyped character. The old one: round vs. flat just isn’t working anymore. It’s not about shape, it’s about depth. I don’t care what their favorite book is, or even what they’re scared of (snakes vs. rats, for example.) We give characters quirky properties and call it good enough when it’s not. I keep learning about characterization. Every time I think I’ve got it down, I realize I’m slipping into stereotypes. But below, please find
I have three stories in mind today, mulling over why two of them fail for me, and one succeeds. Bottom line, character appeal. One of the books is an aspiring writer’s manuscript, the other two were written by well-known authors. On the manuscript, a surprising reaction I had to an otherwise well-written book was that I just flat-out didn’t believe the character. It reminded me how important it is that the character really would act as shown. The rule is: The characters can’t