The Writers Voice
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Some Notes on Characterization
The more you write, the more you reach the conclusion that characterization
is ninety percent of fiction's struggle, maybe more. What actually happens is
not nearly as important as the effect of the events on your main characters and
those who support them.
If I were to tell you, "George has just run off with another woman" you'd be
perfectly justified in replying, "who cares!" George doesn't mean anything to
you. But if I tell you I meant George W. Bush, you'd be all ears. It's "who,"
not "what" that's important. I've started a lot of stories I haven't finished
simply because my characters remained undeveloped and were not able to react
to events in a believable manner. I couldn't move the story along with the
stick figures I started with.
Creating real people, heroes, heroines, villains and village idiots is what
separates the fiction from the non-fiction writer. The fiction writer is in
love with people, while people who write non-fiction are interested in the
that effect these people.
A play like "Death of a Salesman" is unthinkable without Willy Loman. Think
of "The Merchant of Venice" without Shylock. We think of the people in these
plays, without them there is no play. The important element in any piece of
fiction is not what happens, but who it happens to. How many science fiction
spectaculars have failed because there was nobody in them we cared about?
It's a big mistake, I think, to create characters that fit a standard mold.
The villain can be made far more interesting if he wears a white hat and is
clean shaven. It's a good idea to study people, listen to them speak and watch
them react to things that happen. Watch their body language and the unconscious
nervous mannerisms they exhibit. Fiddling with their hats, crossing their
legs, avoiding eye contact. I forget where I read it, but I remember the vivid
picture an author painted of a literary agent at a cocktail party who, he said,
resembled a basketball player dribbling his way to the hoop.
I also believe it's advisable to avoid dull characters. Mr. and Mrs. Ordinary
and their Ordinary child. Readers quickly lose interest in such people. If
you must use them, confine them to subsidiary roles. Eccentrics hold the
reader's interest. Captain Ahab, Lady Macbeth, Dr. Spock. Again, let me bring up
"Death of a Salesman." Are there any Ordinarys' in this play? Hardly. The play
would collapse of boredom if Mr. and Mrs. Ordinary played Mr. and Mrs. Loman.
The reader has to be convinced that the main character is worth caring about.
The character must have faults, be human, vulnerable. The reader should fear
for his safety and feel his pain, as the saying goes. Nobody is anxious for
the safety of 007, everyone knows he's going to make it -- everyone knows
Hercule Poirot will come out on top -- so will Captain Kirk and Nancy Drew --
are sequels to come. Regardless of their professionalism, such stories cannot
approach the level of literature. Literature is rooted in life and life is
Respect your characters enough to describe, not only their psyche, but their
physique as well. Make the reader see them physically as well as know them
emotionally. It helps your reader to see these creations of yours. To
there's a wonderful opening monologue in "Richard III." Shakespeare was
forced to let Gloucester describe himself, (he was denied the crutch of
that you and I use in fiction).
Deform'd, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world,
Scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them:
With this picture of the primary character in the reader's mind, the bloody
events that follow are believable. If we had no idea of Gloucester's
deformities, the events take on a shallower meaning.
Finally, when your character speaks, let it be in his or her own voice -- not
yours. Once you've gone to all this trouble to create a believable person,
don't spoil it by turning that person into a ventriloquist's dummy.
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