Friday, November 21, 2008

Good Characterization in Writing Fiction: Banishing the On/Off Character

It's been a spell since I posted any fiction writing tips. My writing tips are, incidentally, for beginning writers as well as intermediate and advanced writers. Although I like to blab on about plot, POV (which stands for point of view), characterization, conflict, and all the usual stuff, I don't generally go down the usual, obvious, generic paths of advice. I'm more about going through the side roads and back roads of technique...and coming out at a familiar intersection, where you cry, "Hey, so that's how that's done!"

I'm a big one for character-driven stories, so today's focus is on a common characterization mistake made by both beginning and advanced writers, and recommendations for avoiding the pitfalls.

But first, let's do definitions. Good characterization means many things to many people. Some take it to imply sufficient character development, which is the changing of your characters over the course of the story. Others believe good characterization refers to the process of "fully realizing" the characters' personalities--making the characters come alive on the page.

My take on good characterization is that it's anything in the story that allows your readers to identify with the characters. Anything that makes your readers feel they "know" a character, whether it's a major or minor character, is good characterization.

So one of the biggest problem I see with characterization in stories is the on/off character. The on/off character is one who acts in character one minute, then flips over and becomes Ms. Generic at another time when she SHOULD be acting in character.

A character lives and breathes for your reader not just when she's doing story-driven things--like plotting against another character--but when she's eating lunch, driving in her car, or getting dressed in the morning. Yet writers often miss myriad opportunities to breathe life into their characters.

Show who your characters are all the time. You don't need to go overboard. But never let your reader forget who is doing what. Situate your reader in the room with your characters where they can recognize one by her posture, another by his way of speaking, another by her hairstyle.

Don't be afraid of adverbs. Don't overuse them, but don't fear them. Adverbs are your friends when it comes to quick-and-light characterization.

"Go to bed," Mother said.

just doesn't pack the same punch as

"Go to bed," Mother said tiredly.

Take advantage of any opportunity to characterize, so long as it comes at the right time, it's appropriate to the story, and it doesn't seem an outright intrusion in the text.

Don't write:

"Darling," said George, "Would you marry--"

"What would you like?" the waitress interrupted them, wearing a whimsical expression, as though she were thinking of a place far different from her humdrum life.

"Fat-free salad with fat-free dressing," Eunice said gaily. "You were saying, George?"

but rather,
"Darling," said George, "Would you marry--"

"What would you like?" the waitress interrupted them with gum-chewing insensitivity.

Eunice glared at her, bit out, "Fat-free salad with fat-free dressing," and looked at George eagerly. "You were saying?"

Finally, it's OK to turn off your character's character if your reader's focus is elsewhere. Just as your reader would only focus on certain people in the room at a certain time, she only needs to focus on certain characters at any given time.

And again, don't go overboard. This post isn't a recommendation to repeat yourself, to use "tiredly" over and over until your reader feels positively accosted by the fact that Mother is tired.

I'm suggesting you round your characters out so well, and color in all your characters' different shades so thoroughly, and outline so many of your characters' subtle quirks, and show how your characters look standing before that background, that your reader can't miss 'em.

Comments? Opinions? Dissent?

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