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Author Topic: Characterization -- Part 2  (Read 5773 times)

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Bob Mueller

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Characterization -- Part 2
« on: October 17, 2006, 05:07:34 PM »

Date:         Thursday, February 11, 1999 05:17 PM

BookMarc #14
Characterization - part 2

I remember a professor pointing out in a critique of one of my unpublished novels that only one character was well rounded. It was the antagonist. The bad guy. I've learned since that we get the antagonist correct because we dislike the guy so much. But the protagonist, our Oself good guy, is only sketchily drawn because they are us, our other self. We can see Oself clearly, like in a mirror, and know Oself intimately. What we fail to do, folks, because of our familiarity, is to get it down on paper so the reader can see--no, experience--Oself. We need our characters to be so real we feel the snot run from their nose, feel the pain in the chest as they coughs up phlegm. When our readers put down the story at the end, we want them to know more about our characters--what they do and why they do it--than at the beginning. My professor failed to tell me how to do that. And I guess I was too dumb to ask.

So, how do we do that?

Some of my writer friends with many published books, do it by continually reworking the story until they can see the characters so well inside their heads, they can bring them to life on paper. I have a suspicion this serves a character-oriented mind better than plot-oriented. For me it only works up to a point. And for a beginner I think this is a tough way to do it.

I know of other writers who base their characters on someone they know, either from real life or from the movies. This works so long as you don't actually try to duplicate the character to the point where you might be held libel. But it can keep you focused as you go through the story.

What works for me is taking the time to write out the character's background. This can be a tedious process for it's a bit like writing another story, and most people regard this as a waste of time when they could be at real-writing.

Remember what we said about plot? The best way is what works for you. The same with characterization. This may sound like a copout, but it's why writing is such a lonely journey. There are no formulas. While we can point out some sign posts, no one can actually lead you along the path.

BUT, having said that, if you don't seem to be getting anywhere with what you are doing now, try another way. I can't understand people who doggedly refuse to take the time to try something new. Well, yes I can, because that's exactly what I did for so many years, and why it took so long to have my first novel published. Characterization is real writing. It is not an adjunct. It is not option. You must get it right or you will continue to waste your effort on plot and rewriting.

How much we develop each character depends not only on the type of story, but the importance of the character. Detective novels and science fiction generally have less developed characters than a literary novel. A taxi driver who appears one time without any lines is hardly a blip on the reader's mind, but if you bring him back again you might give him one trait, like a squint, so the reader will recognize him. A person we journey with from page one to page four hundred is, if you'll forgive me, another story. Remember back in plot we talked about an epiphany? The protagonist having a sudden revelation--what love is, what his real values are, a deep felt faith experience, or even just who killed whom? Well, if we want our readers share in that experience, to taste it, live it, feel it, we must build them into our character over the course of story. If we can do that, our readers will be glad they journeyed along, and look forward to trekking out with us again.

So one of the main rules of characterization is that our characters should develop as the story develops, so that at the end we know them more intimately than at the beginning. We'll look at how we do that in BookMarc #15.

Copyright Peter E. Abresch BookMarc February 13, 1998

From:    Robert Legleitner
Date:    Thursday, February 11, 1999 07:33 PM

Peter, I can truly relate to what you have written. Recently it was pointed out to me that a scene I'd written was really good regarding the dialogue, setting up suspicion and tension, but the reader didn't "see" enough of the characters. I had been afraid of running on too much with body language and description, but, as my critic pointed out, "Put it all in. You can cut later."

All this AFTER a member of my writers group said he was going home to rethink his own stories because, in describing my stories, I always said, "It's about this person who..."
He always thought of plot, and I always began with a character.

Now, to put that into practice....


Date:    Sunday, February 14, 1999 01:34 PM

I really think there are plot-oriented and character-oriented minds, and there is nothing wrong with either, just how we approach the story.
The other thing about characterization is that everything, dialogue, body language, clothing, jewelry, it all relates to the individual character. We sometimes cut ourselves short when we donít consider these thing. And part of the idea of characterization is verisimilitude, giving the reader the feeling of actually being there and seeing our characters in the flesh.
Thanks for you comments.
Peter Abresch
the Jim Dandy ELDERHOSTEL Mysteries
& BookMarc

Date:    Monday, February 15, 1999 01:10 PM

I agree with all of your points about characterization here. Including that some people have plot oriented minds, and others character oriented. I'm positively the latter. I have never begun a story with circumstances, I always begin with characters and put them into situations. It might be a fun exercise to try it the other way, and see what happens.
I don't think ANY writing is a waste of time. It is all a learning process and keeps one consistent. Practice may not make perfect but it certainly will make one better.:)
I'm about to do something else I haven't tried before. I'm going to treat my fictional town as a character and do a free flowing profile on it.
What advice do you have for making a place come to life as if it *were* one of the characters?

From:    Jane B
Date:    Monday, February 15, 1999 03:22 PM

On 2/15/99 1:10:38 PM, Judy Ludlum wrote:

>I'm about to do something else
>I haven't tried before. I'm
>going to treat my fictional
>town as a character and do a
>free flowing profile on it.
>What advice do you have for
>making a place come to life as
>if it *were* one of the

Judy, that's a real interesting notion. I'd like to hear more about that...what are your hopes for the outcome?

Jane (hoping your town doesn't start talking to you like your characters do, LOL!) :o)

Date:    Monday, February 15, 1999 10:29 PM

On 2/15/99 3:22:35 PM, Jane Barth wrote:
>On 2/15/99 1:10:38 PM, Judy Ludlum
>>I'm about to do something else
>>I haven't tried before. I'm
>>going to treat my fictional
>>town as a character and do a
>>free flowing profile on it.
>>What advice do you have for
>>making a place come to life as
>>if it *were* one of the
>Judy, that's a real interesting notion.
>I'd like to hear more about that...what
>are your hopes for the outcome?
>Jane (hoping your town doesn't start
>talking to you like your characters do,
>LOL!) :o)
LOL,Jane, you and me both!:D
I'm hoping the outcome to be similar to what I get from doing this with my characters. A real sense of place, intimacy. I'm hoping my town will tell me about itself like my characters do. I want to know it so well the reader is transported there, it becomes so real to them that they *know* they were really there.
Not having tried this before I'm not sure what to expect, but I'll keep you posted to how it turns out.

From:    Jane B
Date:    Tuesday, February 16, 1999 03:13 PM

On 2/15/99 10:29:21 PM, Judy Ludlum wrote:
>LOL,Jane, you and me both!:D
>I'm hoping the outcome to be similar to
>what I get from doing this with my
>characters. A real sense of place,
>intimacy. I'm hoping my town will tell
>me about itself like my characters do. I
>want to know it so well the reader is
>transported there, it becomes so real to
>them that they *know* they were really
>Not having tried this before I'm not
>sure what to expect, but I'll keep you
>posted to how it turns out.

I like Kathi T's description of how the weather is almost like a character in her books. Maybe your session will bring something unique about the setting that you can use in this way. Adds infinitely more to the story, IMO. I'll be looking forward to hearing more.

Date:    Friday, February 19, 1999 06:06 PM

Judy & Jane

I don't remember is I mentioned this here before, but in one of my pre-published novels I split scenes between Washington D.C. of today and an old manor house occupied by the Germans on the eastern front during Would War Two. I drew out the house, roughly, I'm not an artist, and figure out what I wanted on each floor and how the roof would be and were all the important rooms were. For the Washington portion, I just took thing from real life--I live nearby. Everyone who read the book said how much more real the German section were, and that it was easy to see I had been to that house, when it truth, it all came out of my head. But I think you have to get the picture down in your mind, because the slightest screw-up will send it all tumbling down like--forgive me--a house of cards. Consistency is the hallmark here.

I did a similar thing with the town of Bolder Harbor, where boldness is our vision and violence is unknown, in which BLOODY BONSAI takes place. It is a fictional town on the New Jersey shore. I had been to Stone Harbor, but I could remember it since I really had no idea at the time I would use it as a local for a story. So I made up Bolder Harbor, drew the whole thing out on a piece of paper and where everything was in relationship to one another. The big this here is that the whole town doesn't have to be drawn, just the important point where action takes place, and the in-between stuff can be left hazy. Like my character, I usually wait till I finish my first draft so I know what points I will need, and then draw things out, figuring out mileage and guideposts.

In KILLING THYME everything takes place in Baltimore, so I had to get a map and go around to the various places I needed and describe what was there. This was more work because I didn't know what I needed and so did more research than necessary.

Finally the weather. First I chose what time of the story takes place in, and then in the first draft I through in things about the weather when it occurred to me, but from the second draft on I paid attention to weather every time the characters stepped outside, always making sure it was consistent, and putting things in to not only let the reader know it was cold, but to feel it as tell. Like this short passage from KILLING THYME:

The wind whipped Dodee's wheaten hair into her face. "It's freezing out here. We could have stayed inside until the cab came."
He opened his coat and bundled her next to him. "It's not that cold."
She looked up to him. "Oh no, just a wind-chill of twenty below." He kissed her. "Um," she smiled, "that helps."
The taxi arrived a few minutes later and they climbed in. The driver put the car in gear and headed for the Monticello Hotel. Jim, relieved of tension, scrunched up next to Dodee and they acted like teenagers.

All of this is done to give verisimilitude, the feeling of actually being there, which plugs the reader that much more into the story. Hope that helps.
Peter Abresch
the Jim Dandy ELDERHOSTEL Mysteries
& BookMarc

From:    Robert Legleitner
Date:    Friday, February 19, 1999 07:03 PM

Peter, glad to hear about your drawing plans. I drew a map of the main location in my first adventure novel. I did house plans too as place was a major character in my mind.

I always do house plans. Much easier to keep track.


Date:    Friday, February 19, 1999 07:25 PM

Although I read BookMarc religiously, up until now I didn't feel I had anything to contribute. Perhaps others may have thought of this, but I not only have mapped out my make-believe town and surrounding areas, but I have added some well known landmarks (in nearby areas) and have estimated mileages to some of the larger cities and other scenic attractions.
But since I'm not very good at drawing house plans, I bought a couple of books of houseplans and picked the type of house I thought each character would live in. Seeing actual plans also gave me ideas for 'hiding places' and views from the windows (i.e., character might just happen to be looking out his/her bedroom window and see (suspect) driving by when they were supposed to be out of town.)
Although I don't know you, I hope you don't mind if I call you by your first name,Peter. But I would like you to know how much I enjoy reading the threads in Book Marc and how much I appreciate your expertise in these areas.
Joanne (who is always looking for ways to improve my writing)

Date:    Friday, February 19, 1999 11:37 PM

I always draw out my towns and the important houses and buildings. I also draw the locations of any murders, placing the body how it was found. I find that detailing the murder scene on paper helps keep details straight, and helps with clue setting.
If I could,I'd probably do those scale models of my towns with little dolls for replicas of my characters to play around with while I'm plotting.:)

Date:    Sunday, February 21, 1999 02:29 PM

Bob and Judy and Joanne
Thank you all for your comments. We learn from one another.
And Joanne, what a lovely thing to say. Yes you may call me Peter or whatever you like. I am humble, got the award for it last year. But always feel like you have something to contribute.
Another thing that might help you all is that lotís of time I will go into Architectural Digest magazine to describe some of my upscale interiors. Being color blind this also helps with keeping things straight. Iím always on the lookout for old copies, and I shameless steal them from my doctors office whenever I can.
I also look through Lands End, L.L.Bean, and Eddie Bauer catalogs to dress my characters.
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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