Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Characterization: More than Rice

by Annette Lyon

In my pre-published days, I attended a small writing conference with a very successful novelist as the keynote speaker. She discussed characterization and how important it is to know your characters.

She went to the lengths of saying that you need to know your characters so well that, if given the choice of mashed potatoes or rice with their meal, you'd know which they'd pick.

Wow, I thought. You'd really know your character then.

Years later? I think that so what if you know that Jenny prefers rice to mashed potatoes?

That's not necessarily good characterization; that's taste.

I agree that you need to know your characters well, to the point that you'll likely know a lot more about Jenny or Peter than the reader ever will.

But really, is rice versus mashed potatoes relevant to creating a well-rounded character?

Maybe, if there were a deep reason for Jenny preferring it.

What if rice reminds her of those two life-changing weeks she spent in Hong Kong? Or she hates mashed potatoes because that's what she had for dinner the day her father died? If there's a good reason for it, maybe it's a detail worth knowing about her, regardless of whether your reader ever learns it.

But to me, having full characters is about knowing what makes them tick rather than what menu choices they make.

Take your main character(s) and think through some of these questions:

What were the most forming events of their childhood, for good or bad? Why? Who was there? How did they feel?

What person (or people) have impacted them the most (again, for good or bad) and how?

What moment from their past scarred them forever and impacts how they act today?

What experiences created their belief system?

I'm sure you can come up with more. You don't need to know all of these things up front. For me, half the joy of writing novels is discovering these kinds of things about my characters as I go.

Relatively early in one of my books as I drafted a scene between two brothers, I was still trying to discover more of who my characters were. Out of the blue, the POV character remembered a life-changing event that happened to him as a child.

The event was a huge revelation into what made him the man he was, and it impacted much of how he had already interacted with his brothers and other people. It was huge for my ability to "get" him and make him real.

Understanding him this way helped me write him better for the rest of the book, and, in fact, that bit of history ended up playing a big part in the rest of the plot and the conflicts that followed. I think I uncovered that part of him because I was looking for it and because I was focused on him, his thoughts, his feelings, his motivations. In other words, what made him tick.

Somehow I doubt his character would have been nearly as likable and real to readers if, during that scene, I'd been more worried about figuring out his favorite color than what made him who he was.

There is a place for taste-type characterization as well, of course.

Let's use an example. Knowing that Greg loves John Denver definitely says something about who he is. But you can't rely on preferences alone to create characters who come alive on the page.

What if I tell you that Greg's wife died from a gun shot at a convenience store when their little girl was just a toddler? That he's now the single father of a first grader? That he became a police officer after his wife's death in hopes of preventing someone else from having the same kind of loss he'd experienced?

Suddenly you know much more about his past and what drives his future actions.

Knowing he likes John Denver is a pleasant touch, a fun addition, but far more important is knowing the big events that shaped his heart.

Think of characterization details this way:

Dig deep to uncover what makes your characters tick. That's the cake.

Then add the fun, fluffy details like Coke versus Pepsi or rice versus mashed potatoes. Those details are the icing.

Plain cake is okay. Iced caked is much better.

Just be sure to give your readers more than icing!


Danette said...

Great post!
As a writer I do enjoy learning about my character, it's usually as I write that I discover more about them. I think that is the magic about writing. It's fun to learn about each character.

Becky said...

Learning about my characters is the most exciting part of writing for me. I really enjoyed your post--it gets right to the meat of characterization!