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Author Topic: Characterization -- Part 3  (Read 5706 times)

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Bob Mueller

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Characterization -- Part 3
« on: October 17, 2006, 05:10:55 PM »

 Date:         Friday, February 19, 1999 02:00 PM

BookMarc #15
Characterization - part 3

In #14 we said that a character should develop as the story moves along. How much will depend on the length of the story. A novel gives us time to fully develop a character while a short story limits us to the main theme-line. And we said characterization is also genre-dependant. But even in a time-compressed action story we can reveal a lot of character background and reflect it in the character's actions.

Let's take our old friend, Oself, and our two-hour ticking bomb from our discussion on plotting, and add to it people trapped inside an elevator. Oself and three men are out in the hall and the building is in the middle of a desert. Hey, it's just an example. So it's up to the men to defuse the bomb or slink away like cowards.

Oself's for slinking, but that triggers an oft-remembered flashback of a child-him hiding in a closet while his mother is beaten. That shame keeps him from being the first out the door. He'll hang in--for an hour. A young mother crying in the elevator triggers another memory. He is leaving his wife because of a knockdown fight. But the young mother also brings back memories of his own children. So he hangs in some more.

So it goes. Oself's memories play off the reality of the bomb as the four men, sweating to defuse it, relay their stories to those inside the elevator and to each other, their hopes and fears and cowardly acts. Oself grabs deep inside for an unknown courage and hangs in. Finally, all the sharing builds a community bond so strong it overpowers any thoughts of Oself's individual self-preservation. He is going up or down with these guys. And the last seconds ticking off lays bare his raw emotions, the fear that has haunted him since hiding in the closet and caused him to run from everything, even, now, his wife and children, and he realizes it has kept him from bonding with them despite his love. Then the bomb is defused. Suddenly it's over. Oself is a hero bound with those in the struggle, and this has banished forever the ghost hiding in the closet. He is free at last to love himself, and those around him.

Okay, we have a lot of plot there, and of course we're TELLING everything rather than SHOWING, but this is an example of how it's done. We don't plop a character's whole background out on the table. That would be boring, or it would be another story. We weave it in like colored thread as important points come up. Something triggers a memory and we get a glimpse of our character's past. This in turn helps us to understand why he does what he does.

If you want a really good example--aside from the magnificent, tremendous, fantastic BLOODY BONSAI, of course--read THE MUSIC ROOM by Dennis McFarland. It's six or eight years old now, but it is almost a text book on characterization, with some fine descriptions as well. I'd like to claim the idea as my own, but a teacher of mine, Marcy Heidish, THE TORCHING, touted it to me. I learned a great deal from reading it and I highly recommend it to you as a study and a story.

Which brings up another point we touched upon way back in BookMarc #2. If we want to write, we need to read. We need to see how different authors solve the various plotting and character problems they've faced, and learn from them. We can't copy the material, but we can copy the problems and the solutions.

Okay, I think we've determined that we have to reveal our characters to our readers, but before we can actually do it, we first have to reveal them to ourselves. We'll take a look at how to do that in BookMarc #16.

Copyright Peter E. Abresch BookMarc February 13, 1998

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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