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Author Topic: Characterization -- Part 1  (Read 5986 times)

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Bob Mueller

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Characterization -- Part 1
« on: October 17, 2006, 05:02:24 PM »

Date:         Thursday, February 04, 1999 06:34 PM

BookMarc #13
Characterization - part 1

The time has come, the walrus said, to speak of characterization, the second leg of our writing-tripod of plot, characterization, and writing/rewriting.

In some ways characterization should probably be placed before plot. A lot of writers work on characterization before they do anything. They find out who their characters are, put them in a place of confrontation, and see how they react. Nothing wrong with that. It allows us to add a character's bits and pieces as we go along.

I work on characterization after I finish the first draft. I used to think I was alone in approaching it this way, but after making an unscientific poll, I've concluded it's about half and half. The British writer, John Braine, ROOM AT THE TOP, advocated this approach. As I work with my characters, see what they do and try figure out why, I keep a file of things that pop up about each one--an irregular speech pattern, a bird watching hobby, a love of food--so I already know a lot about them before I start developing their background.

I believe it depends on whether your mind is character- oriented or plot-oriented. Are you writing this story because you visualize a few characters that you'd like to know? What happens when Waldo meets Emerson? Or do you visualize your story starting from a situation? What would happen if a guy woke up to find himself in Paris? In 1840? On a hot air balloon? I think literary writers generally work out their characters first, action writers hang in until after the first draft. Just a guess.

Either way, like death and taxes, we have to we have to work out the development of our characters. If we can't make them seem real, our story will never seem real. Remember Oself, our other self? Unless we develop life-like characters with hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses, how can we elicit an Oself response in our readers? If we draw cardboard characters that no one can identify with, who will care what happens to them?

What's our reaction if we hear an old time movie star has died? Probably a big ho-hum.

But suppose that star had stopped and talked to us? Suppose we meet her again, tell her some of our life experiences and hear some of hers? That she was orphaned at four, shuffled from house to house, waited tables to earn money for acting lessons, and that men treated her badly before her big break. We identify with her ups and downs, admire her tenacity, and swap jokes and laughter along with our stories. Now we know her. Now she is a friend. Then we find she has been murdered.

What is our reaction now? Shock. Disbelief. Rage. Loss. And maybe we'll cry.

That's the reaction we want from our readers, folks. That's the difference between cardboard characters and those with substance. Between ho-hum and an Oself response. And that's what will plug readers into our writing, and what will keep them coming back like a long-time friend.

We'll investigate some ways to do that in BookMarc #14

Copyright Peter E. Abresch BookMarc February 13, 1998

From:    Robert Legleitner
Date:    Thursday, February 04, 1999 06:58 PM

Peter, you've put your finger on something with intense meaning for me. Way back when I first began in earnest to write, I was going to do an actioner based on the old Saturday serials, 15 action packed cliff-hanging chapters. I outlined like crazy until...

. . . until I wondered what kind of person would walk into situations like the ones I was outlining.

I stopped to examine my hero. As the Biblical phrase has it, the scales fell from my eyes. I began writing after I knew my man very well indeed and the book was written as an adventure with the emphasis on character and character relationships. The adventure was still there but I felt the book was richer for the human elements in it.

Now everything I write has people at the center, how they understand and misunderstand the other characters. Even my series has long-running subtexts that explore and, hopefully, explain the relationships between the main characters. I know my people, where they came from, where they were educated, what they want from life, and how they try to get what they want.

For what it's worth, that's my experience and I'm happy with it.


From:    Rhea Skillings
Date:    Friday, February 05, 1999 07:54 AM

Wow, Peter, you get all the way thru the entire 1st draft before settling on characterization? Granted, you probably write it a heck of a lot faster than I do, but my characters insist on my knowing them before the story works. I started off with a cool plot (I least *I* thought it was cool) and created a mc to start it off. I bogged down several times in progress because I didn't know what in the plot would happen next because I didn't know what the characters would do, and why they would do it. I had to turn to character motivation to make progress again. I do know that some of my more minor characters followed your pattern, I've gone back and put in a Texas drawl here, and a city snapper there. But not for the secondary characters, like the murderers and other suspects, they had to be developed before the 1st draft could get done (which it isn't, yet).

Rhea Skillings

Date:    Friday, February 05, 1999 09:11 AM

I do some character development before the first draft, a great deal during the process, and some in the second draft as well.

In other words, I have to know some things before I begin, but I always learn far more just by writing about the characters.


Date:    Friday, February 05, 1999 02:12 PM

Bob, Rhea, Suzanne,
Had a few minutes I donít normally have and so I checked to make sure the posting got out and, wow, you guys keep me on my toes.

First of all, we all approach this thing differently. I think it comes out from the way we think. My strong point has always been plotting and only after a lot of failures did I suddenly realize I had to bring my characters alive. Duh.

Because of the way I think plot, I kind of construct it in my head so that I start I build my characters, somewhat, as I go, sort of like you Suzanne. But anything that comes up, a piece of dialogue a character uses a lot, like--ya know, I save on a character file, one for each character. Then when I finished my first draft, and know I have a novel, I go through character by character and flesh them out in depth.

The other thing is, I try, as I move through the story, to make and keep everything logical. If a man kills someone, I have to work out the logic behind it, which for me is part of the way I do plot. So in working out why the guy is a killer, I have have to have the reason, and so this becomes part of the killerís character. Make sense?

All of it works, itís just how it works for you.

Let me make another point. A book Iím reading, THE AMATEURS, by David Halberstam, is an interesting book about rowers--I canít think of the correct term at the moment--and Halberstam in a Pulitzer journalist. As I said, itís interesting and I will finish it, but it is written more in the style of a newspaper article. A lot of telling us about the people and whatís going on, and as such, I donít believe it really engages the reader. Itís interesting, it has big sales, not knocking it from that standpoint, but I think if the characters had been fleshed out, if we had an interior POV, it would have brought the story that much more alive. My opinion. I think MARTIN DRESSELER by Steven Millhouser has the same problem. So what I'm saying is, good characterization will engaged the reader and take him/her to a different level. Good for all you guys who are doing it.

Peter Abresch
the Jim Dandy ELDERHOSTEL Mysteries
& BookMarc

From:    Rhea Skillings
Date:    Thursday, February 11, 1999 09:09 PM


Was thinking about this the other day... I sometimes find myself "losing" my character's voice as I write the plot. Not *all* of her, but the extra things that she tosses in here and there. I go back and put her back in, at times. So I suppose, to a certain extent, I do write to the plot as well. But when things are really clicking well, I don't lose her at all. But if I waited to write until she was right there, I'd never get it done. She comes around after I've put her actions in. *G*

Rhea Skillings

From:    Deleted User
Date:    Sunday, February 14, 1999 01:26 PM

I think sometimes Iím half way through a book before the voice of that book really clicks in, and then it sticks around. I tend to write everything from one POV and it might be different if I had multiple POVs.
Thanks for you comment.
Peter Abresch
the Jim Dandy ELDERHOSTEL Mysteries
& BookMarc

Sometimes it takes therapy to put the past behind you. Other times, it takes a 20 gallon trash bag and a couple of cinder blocks.
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