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Some Notes on Characterization


Harry Buschman

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 issues 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 movie 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 -- there are sequels to come. Regardless of their professionalism, such stories cannot approach the level of literature. Literature is rooted in life and life is extinguishable.

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 illustrate, there's a wonderful opening monologue in "Richard III." Shakespeare was forced to let Gloucester describe himself, (he was denied the crutch of narration 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.

©Harry Buschman2000

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