Characterization

By Theresa Rizzo

 

The heart of this material was presented by Pamela Claire in a workshop on characterization, which I then took a littler deeper.

Characterization involves drawing from an author’s emotional well of experiences.  It involves a lot of self-probing.  A person’s life experiences create emotional baggage that dominates how that person relates to the world.  It creates the filters and protective mechanisms a person relies on throughout life.  A person’s core emotions are motivating factors that control how that person will react to most situations.  To write well, an author needs to be able and willing, to undergo an emotional inventory of herself to be able to discover which emotions are available to tap into to project through your characters.

 

Another potential benefit from having conducted this emotional examination, is that it can help guild an author towards the genre in which she might best be suited to write.  Our talents don’t necessarily all lie in writing what we love.  We might not have the temperament or the emotional experiences to draw on to successfully write what we love to read.  To write well, one needs to be able and willing to tap into your emotional repertoire.  But what is that emotional range? 

 

Questions to ask yourself:

·         What are experiences that would absolutely crush you—or at least bring you to your knees?  Why?

·         What are some of the most stupid things you’ve ever done?  Why?

·         What aspects of your life can you just not seem to get together?  Why?

·         What are your greatest emotional fears?  Why?

·         What are your greatest strengths?  Weakness?  Why?

·         What is the most amazing, miraculous thing that every happened in your life?  Why?

·         What was the happiest moments in you life?  Why?

·         How willing are you willing to tap into these emotions, to probe these fears, hurts, and joys, to expose yourself through your characters?

 

The why part of these questions is a critical aspect.  One needs to understand why you feel the way you do to be able to apply these emotions to your characters to motivate  your characters in a way that will make sense and feel authentic to the  reader.

 

Great stories rely on great characters the reader doesn’t necessarily need to sympathize with, but the reader needs to whole-heartedly believe in.  The characters must be genuine.  In speech, in actions and reactions.  It must all make sense to the reader.  And often a critical aspect of this authenticity lay in properly motivating your character’s emotions.

 

***Warning— As much as I believe this emotional assessment is absolutely necessary to achieve the art of writing complex, memorable characters; this self-examination will be very difficult for most authors. 

It will most likely be an uncomfortable procedure.  It might be frustrating.   It demands absolute truth with yourself—a truth some people will be unable to achieve due to protective defense mechanisms.  And that’s okay—it simply means that the areas where you cannot bear to go---or be honest with yourself, are areas you are not best suited to be writing about; so don’t send your characters there because you can’t write something well if you’re shielding yourself from the pain you’re putting your characters through.

Authors who are masters at characterization have the ability to channel their emotions into their characters.  For as long as they are in that character’s point of view, they become that character.  They feel what that character feels and reacts as that character—with his life experiences to motivate him—would react.  And that’s an important distinction.  The author must feel and react to the events and background you’ve given the character as that character would react—not react how the author would react in the same circumstances.

To be able to do this well, you have to have a thorough understanding of the character’s setting and background.  You need to understand the era, environment, and general issues of the day both the factual reality and how the character perceived it to be.  You need to know if a traumatic event happened when your character was ten—perhaps being picked on by a bully at school, how that subtly—or overtly, affected your character and colored his motivations for the rest of his life.

Knowing these key emotional events in each character’s life, each fear, flaw and strength, helps you identify potential triggers and motivations for your character’s reactions in the story you’re writing.  It helps you to challenge your character, and plan important plot-points along his character arc of growth.

And as with most things in writing, we’re after not just the external fears, like fear of spiders, dark, heights, water etc., but were seeking the deeper layers—the emotional layers of fear, rejection, acceptance, love, etc.—the biggies.

The reality is, the vast majority of mankind are performers.  We put on a face—be a person, to conform to the role of what is expected of us at that time.  In a single day, each of us changes faces multiple times.  We are mothers, friends, lovers, daughters, women, teachers, disciplinarians, entertainers, bosses, etc.  We change these roles to conform to other’s expectations of us or others needs—and these external faces we put on can be interesting, but the truly intriguing human being is the person behind the role. 

Paparazzi and fans spend a great deal of time, energy and money, trying to strip famous people of their roles to expose the “real” person beneath—often using intrusive violating means.  As authors, it’s our job to, through the story, allow the reader get to know the whole character in all his complexities.  We show the reader the external personas of our characters, but then we need to let them know the vulnerable human beneath our character’s public facade.  And the very best writers find a way to do this subtly and skillfully.  Sometimes it’s done with abrupt starkness, but it should always be done with respect.

 

To successfully write great characters, you need to:

1.      Be able to do an emotional assessment of yourself so you can tap into your emotional experiences and channel them into your various characters as needed.

2.      Do the research necessary your story.  You need to understand the setting, era and general issues of the day so you can understand how these have affected your characters.

3.      Know your characters’ backgrounds—major life events, minor life events, identify their fears and think about how to turn them into flaws.  Know where their pain and their joy comes from.  What do your characters have to give to others?  Which of their emotions predominates?  Resentment, optimism, hatred, or fear?  This information will help you motivate your characters dialogue, nonverbal responses, actions and reactions.

 

Common Characterization advice: