[Elderhostel Mysteries & Fiction Writing Techniques]

BookMarc © #13
Characterization - Part 1 of 6

     The time has come, the walrus said, to speak of characterization, the second leg of our writing-tripod of plot, characterization, and writing/rewriting. Sorry it has taken me so long to get around to this, but I was busy getting a book out and preparing for teaching two classes at the Maryland Writers Association conference.

     In some ways characterization should probably be placed before plot. A lot of writers work on characterization before they do anything. They find out who their characters are, put them in a place of confrontation, and see how they react. Nothing wrong with that. It allows us to add a character's bits and pieces as we go along.

     I usually work on characterization after I finish the first draft. I used to think I was alone in approaching it this way, but after making an unscientific poll, I've concluded it's about half and half. Mystery writer, Barbra D'Amato, told me she does it this way, as did the British writer, John Braine.

     I believe it depends on whether your mind is character-oriented or plot-oriented. Are you writing this story because you visualize a few characters that you'd like to know? What happens when Waldo meets Emerson? Or do you visualize your story starting from a situation? What would happen if a guy woke up to find himself in Paris? In 1840? On a hot air balloon? I think literary writers generally work out their characters first, action writers hang in until after the first draft. Just a guess.

     Either way, like death and taxes, we have to we have to work out the development of our characters. If we can't make them seem real, our story will never seem real. Remember Oself, our other self? Unless we develop life-like characters with hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses, how can we elicit an Oself response in our readers? If we draw cardboard characters that no one can identify with, who will care what happens to them?

     What's our reaction if we hear an old time movie star has died? Probably a big ho-hum.

     But suppose that star had stopped and talked to us? Suppose we meet her again, tell her some of our life experiences and hear some of hers? That she was orphaned at four, shuffled from place to place as a child, waited tables to earn money for acting lessons, and that men treated her badly before her big break. We identify with her ups and downs, admire her tenacity, and swap jokes and laughter along with our stories. Now we know her. Now she is a friend. Then we find she has been murdered.

     What is our reaction now? Shock. Disbelief. Rage. Loss. Maybe we'll cry.

     That's the reaction we want from our readers, folks. That's the difference between cardboard characters and those with substance. Between ho-hum and an Oself response. And that's what will plug readers into our writing, and what will keep them coming back like a long-time friend.

     If you'll forgive me for using a personal example, I once got note from a fan who told me she liked one of my books up until page one hundred and something, when the protagonist, Jim Dandy, used "that word," meaning the big F. She went on to tell me she knew Jim Dandy and he would not have used that word. Which was news to me. But what it did tell me was that I had developed the character to where she felt she knew him as a friend.

     We'll investigate some ways to do that in BookMarc #14.

     If you would like to personally receive BookMarcs when they are issued, send an email to Peter at easyreadingwriting dot com taking out the spaces and changing the at and dot for the symbols.

     And remember: it's always better to light a candle in your mind by reading [Easy Reading Writing] than to curse the darkness of rejections. There is an easy order link to B&N to purchase the book.

© Peter E. Abresch - BookMarc ©
February 13, 1998

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