Posts Tagged ‘Characterization’

Christmas & Character Arc

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

In one of my Twitter posts, I commented that if you believe in grace, then God must have believed in Character arc. That’s probably true. This post is about character, but also about people and how fiction and the real mirror each other.

Regardless, it’s struck me again today how all humans are basically the same, wherever you go, whatever you do, whoever you meet. And the same is true for characters in novels. The truth of character and character traits is valid for life and vice versa. We all have the same spectrum of emotions, of agendas or goals, of desires and wants, of ways of thinking that are valid and not so valid. What we are is human, and there’s a lesson or at least food for thought in the way that those same character traits that are assigned to fiction characters are analogous to real people in real life.

One of the keys in real life or real fiction is that we don’t comprehend why the character or person does what they do, without reading the whole novel, and sometimes not even then. How could we? But we can try to understand, both  our similarities and our differences, by applying what we know about ourselves and other people’s stories to any story that we are exposed to–not that this means we will fully comprehend but that we have a better chance of doing so.

What I’m saying is that you take a basic proposed character for a story, and you give that character traits, usually traits that will most effectively resonant with the theme that you want to “illustrate” or give breath to, in your story, from a grouping of possible character traits. Those traits are simply traits, tacked on to the essential character, a cardboard representation of a person, until that stereotype or archetype gets filled out with those good AND bad character traits which make the character more real to us.

Those traits could be anything, from race to religion to hair color to skin color. From occupation to favorite pasttimes to ways of dealing with conflict. Some of those things, like ways of dealing with conflict, are keys to who we are, to the essential person. Some are just window dressing. But it does just come down to the fact the we ARE all the same, regardless of whether we are blonde or red-haired or black or Asian or white or Christian, Jewish or Muslim.

And because we are basically all the same, that means our civilizations and countries and organizations–all are basically the same too. Each has done good and bad. Each has had some kind of Group Think that leads to some kind of wrong-doing or some kind of real and lasting good. Each has similar faults, which is why people can write books that speak of how, in general, this (whatever it is) is how it is, and this is why such and such should be done instead. But each culture or country has done something not so good, each has been guilty of some kind of genicide, of some kind of terrorism, of some kind of greed or irresponsibility–some more, some less, some now, some in the past, and some most likely in the future.

What is good is that we, like the characters in our novels, can grow and change, become more, in order to deal with the obstacles that are presented to us, obstacles to our goals. But we are still essentially the same. Some people like to emphasize the differences, for good and bad. Some like to emphasize the similarities, for good or bad. Some people get caught up in thinking a group is either all bad or that they must be all good…otherwise it’s prejudice, but that’s just another form of prejudice.  No group–or person–is either all bad or all good.

I think we should emphasize and value both our similarities and our differences–as we do with any fictional character, hero, heroine or villain. That’s why we don’t write unsympathetic protagonists, because no one wants to read about them, and because they really don’t exist. Not that we should value badness. But only our perceptions of them exist or change, depending on what we know about them, how they are presented to us–or come presented to us or how those created preconceptions have blinded us sometimes to who people are, either a character or a real person. Our differences are tests, they are our obstacles to our potential–as both ourselves, and our countries and our world, could be thought of as the hero in our story.

Because we have those basic similarities and differences, we are mirrors of each other–all of us. Some recent readings come to mind here, when I think of mirrors. I’ve been reading “Wired for Story” by Lisa Cron, that one section about how we have “mirror neurons” that allow us to “experience” what other people experience, either by empathizing or by reading about other people/characters in story. [There is much more to it than that, but you’ll have to read the book.] So perhaps our basic wiring should give us hope, that in writing or reading our stories, especially the ones that most resonate with our most inner selves, we grow in both our understanding of others but also of ourselves, and perhaps that will lead us–all of us–to valuing both our differences and our similarities. It is only in those differences and similarities–what we are–that we will find the way as humans, as a country, as readers and writers and thus, as heroes or heroines in our own stories.

So this is my Christmas blog. Grace and character arc…birth, beginnings, potential, growth, conflict, resolution. Maybe I’ve said too little about too much or not enough. I certainly haven’t said everything I could say, or everything there is to say. Thoughts?

The Unsympathetic Protagonist–Characterization

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Nearly every writer has heard about this character. From other writers, from editors, from agents. We know that editors and agents will reject a manuscript with an unsympathetic protagonist. They won’t want to read the novel; they believe, rightly so, that readers won’t like the protagonist, won’t want to spend 400 or more pages in close association with that character.

So who is this mysterious character that invades our prose? Who is this masked entity, this unsympathetic protagonist? … What is meant by this term and how can we, as writers, avoid this pitfall and create characters that are, instead, sympathetic? The answer is: By unmasking these characters, by peeling away the layers, by making them real. …

What can be done to change that character so that he or she is considered sympathetic? Three basic things related to characterization must occur to have the reader perceive a character as sympathetic:  (1) the characters must be rounded and believable; (2) the readers must like them and connect with them; thus, the author must reveal the right balance of the character’s good and bad traits for the story being told; and (3) the reader must understand how and why they are how they are; the author must, therefore, make the protagonist known to the reader. …

What are the techniques needed to make the unsympathetic protagonist sympathetic? As stated above, the main way to do this is to make the reader identify with, know and like the protagonist, preferably before any revelations of wrongdoing. …

In Shawshank Redemption, the character, Andy Dufresne,  has murdered his wife. If we’re introduced to Andy without knowing the extenuating circumstances, then we’re much less likely to try to excuse him and to like him when his good or interesting qualities are revealed. Thus, the storyteller immediately reveals that Andy was upset and drinking, that his wife was having an affair with another man, and that he tried to confront them when he was drunk. The audience can’t approve, but we know why it happened, and we can excuse him more, knowing those circumstances–he didn’t, for instance, murder her for the insurance or because she drank his last beer.  …

The following are 5 of the techniques to help make your protagonist sympathetic:

(Note: these techniques should not be used alone. They work best when several are combined  There are  9 techniques in the article.)

1) Make the protagonist someone who is perceived as more likable and less reprehensible within that group of characters. For example, in Pirates of the Carribean [1st movie in the series], Captain Jack Sparrow is not the worst character among those in the film; we see he has a better standard of behavior than the other pirates and that he’s smarter. He’s not perfect, but we can accept him and like him anyway. Early in the film, he saves the heroine, who we have come to like–and he’s funny, rather charming & smart. …

2. ) Make the anatagonist less likable — someone you’d hate more and whose actions/ words make the audience sympathetic to the protagonist. …

4.) Show that the protagonist has … been wronged, betrayed or hurt by someone–something that will get the readers’ sympathy. For example, in Bodyguard of Lies, by Robert Doherty [Bob Mayer], the protagonist Neeley discovers she has been betrayed: “When had she finally known that the man she loved had handed her a bomb to carry onboard a plane full of people.” …

8.) Show in what ways the protagonists might be admired or have them do something readers would admire. This includes doing something really well, or being a leader of some sort…something that makes the character special. …

9.) Show how the protagonist is the underdog within the group of characters. Examples of this are Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; the Titanic  [James Cameron’s movie] hero Jack Dawson; and the protagonist Rye Forrester in A Reason to Believe by Maureen McKade. …

How does your protagonist compare with other protagonists & to real-life people?

To grow in our craft, we need to be objective and learn from other writers and from life.  … Analyze why you like certain protagonists. What are their flaws? What do you find endearing or interesting about them?  .. Look at people who you like in real life. What are their flaws? What do you like about them, despite their flaws? Analyzing other protagonists will help you create better characters and increase your repertoire of narrative techniques.

[Excerpt from “The Unsympathetic Protagonist,” an article by Janice Hussein, Document Driven, which appears in Writer’s Digest’s 2010 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market. Pages 46 – 50. Link to full excerpt of article’s opening: on my website]


Do you have any techniques or tips for other writers about how to  make a character likable–having readers identify with, like, and connect with a character?

Conversation. Breaking rules in fiction

Saturday, May 19th, 2012

For dialogue, at least in fiction, breaking the rules of conversation can be a good thing.

First, the three rules of rule breaking, as best-selling author Bob Mayer will tell you (applied to writing), are (1) know the rules; (2) have a good reason for breaking the rules; and (3) take responsibility for breaking them. (These rules and other great info can be found in his book, Write It Forward: From Writer to Successful Author. ) This is excellent advice. And that can certainly be applied to dialogue.

What are some of the rules of Conversation?  From an old Linguistics course textbook*, which fell into my lap this week, I found a page covering H. Paul Grice’s Maxims of Conversation**. I thought I’d apply these to writing dialogue. These are some of the rules you’ll want to break in your fictional dialogue.  (Be aware, though, that conversations should probably still make sense, for those who write experimental fiction.) This is just one way of looking at dialogue, a different perspective, to help writers “think outside of the box,” though we usually don’t think in terms of rules of conversation,  except in specific cases, like the rule to not interrupt, and so on. These maxims have been criticized, but are useful as general guides to politeness–they don’t represent the full range of human communication.

What are Grice’s Conversational Maxims?  ***  And how can they be applied to writing dialogue.

There are 4 kind of  Maxims/ Rules.

Maxims of Quantity:  (1) make your contribution to the conversation as information as necessary, which means don’t make comments that seem to add nothing and mean nothing; (2)  but at the same time, do not make it more informative than necessary

This first part of the Maxim should be followed for storytelling–don’t make comments that seem to add nothing and mean nothing.  But they can be broken, for example, when the character is responding from a different perspective, or when that kind of comment is the character’s MO–when avoiding a topic or when frustrated, and so on. For this second part, a run-on sentence of dialogue would be the example of more information than necessary. This could be done to add conflict or humor. Though be cautious of anything that doesn’t add to the storytelling.

Maxims of Quality:

The two maxims of quality are (1) do not say what you believe to be false; and (2) do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Both of these rules can obviously be broken to good effect in fiction–for example, to add conflict and obstacles for the protagonist to overcome.

Maxim of Relation:

The Maxim is to be relevant. Being relevant in dialogue isn’t absolutely necessary, if doing so for a character is actually part of the character or character’s behavior. Or it may be a way for a character to deal with a specific person or situation.

Maxims of Manner:

The four Maxims of Manner are (1) avoid obscurity of expression; (2) avoid ambiguity; (3) be brief; and (4) be orderly.

As far as the form of dialogue, I would be careful about breaking the rules. For content,  so much could be done. Some ways to break these rules in fiction are when the expression is fresh; the ambiguity provides conflict; and the long-winded character has a specific reason for tending to be that way–though again, I’d suggest caution, for any writing that doesn’t add to the storytelling. As for orderliness, human relations and conversation in real life aren’t always orderly–except maybe if you’re at a dinner party where conversation is the objective–and conflict  and dynamic dialogue are the goals in fiction, not necessarily orderliness. 😉

I hope this has helped you think from a different perspective about your approach to writing dialogue . Some writers who are noted for great dialogue and their use of dialect are Amy Tan, Susan Straight, and Elmore Leonard.

For writing fiction, what are your thoughts on creating great dialogue and on rule-breaking?


*An Introduction to Language (4th Edit.) by Victoria Fromkin & Robert Rodman, pg 225.

** From “Logic and Conversation.”


Character Arc, Part III

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

This is part III of a series on characterization, beginning with (Part I) creating characters, and last week, (Part II) revealing characters.

(Part of this is taken from my article, “Which Arc Are We On?” in the Writer’s Digest’s 2011 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, an article which covers the four arcs:  story, character, romantic and subplot. So a little on character arcs today.)

First, what is an arc. The word itself is both a noun and a verb, implying both a unity and a progression–which so describes the arcs in fiction. I think it’s a great way to understand what they are. Arcs provide a unity that defines what a novel is–cohesiveness–but within that unity lies action, movement–the progression of the novel, the character, from beginning to end.  

Character arcs are the process of change that a character undergoes over the course of a story, so that by story end, the characters have grown by struggling against conflict and are thus prepared, and able to meet and overcome the “forces of antagonism.”

Each major character should have their own story line–a plot (or subplot) with a goal, motivation, obstacle and some kind of antagonist. But this plot or subplot is different from the Character arc, which is internal conflict. Character arcs give depth to the character and the story.

Internal conflict may be considered as the emotional facet of conflict. It puts the character’s inner mind on stage, showing the interplay between emotion and reason, between character arc and the story arc. It allows the readers to more fully empathize and identify with the characters. It draws the readers into the story more completely to connect, since readers respond to emotion and to the intimacy of the character arc.

Character arcs begin with the introduction of major or subplot characters, usually in the first few chapters, and they end with the resolution, or with the end of the story arc or the subplot. Character growth propels the novel forward. Character arcs more fully reveal the true nature of each character, through actions and decisions that change the characters as they go through the obstacles, so that by the novel’s end, the reader finally sees who the characters really are and sees how they’ve been forced to change in response to events.

What kinds of characters and character arcs do you find are the most intriguing to read? To write? What would be your tips or tricks for character arcs?

Copyright © 2011 Document Driven

Bringing your characters into focus, Part II

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

In the same way that the cameraman brings characters to life  frame by frame in movies, the novelist brings their characters to life–we just use more words. We create scenes to illuminate our characters for the reader, to involve readers in our story. Bringing those characters into focus is the topic of this blog post. Adjusting that lense for maximum effect. 

After we’re developed our character sketches on paper and in our imagination [see the previous post, Characterization Part 1, for some tips on doing this], we know, basically, who our characters are–

Then the writing begins. Keep in mind that often it is only when we begin to write the novel, that we really begin to feel the characters as living, breathing full-life characters. Elizabeth Bowen once said, “The novelist’s perceptions of his characters take place in the course of actual writing of the novel.”

If you’re a writer, then we don’t have to ask or answer, Why is character important? Why is revealing character important? It’s because character drives plot and plot drives character. And because it is often the really great characters that keep us reading [or in movies, watching], and that stay in our memory, long after we’ve read a book.

There are several ways to reveal character:

1) Exposition—the last resort—the author telling the readers about the characters. Exposition works to explain the characters conflicts, once you’re dramatized it and offers a different perspective–on the conflict, on the characters’ reactions to the conflict, and on the characters involved.  Small amounts of back story can help us understand the characters’ choices. And the words we use to describe a character will develop mood, theme, foreshadowing.

2) Actions of characters: That maxim of “Show, Don’t Tell”–although there is a place for telling, but that’s another post. Characters usually become vivid only as seen in action [including dialogue].

Through what they do, how they do it–how passionately, etc., and with whom.

Through how they treat themselves and others.

Through their reactions to obstacles and events, including their physical reactions.

In some ways, revealing character initially should be like first dates—what kind of an impression do we want to create, given our characters and plot. During real life dates, those people/characters who open the door for us and listen to us give a different impression than the ones who are rude or who immediately try to stick their tongue down our throat.  🙂

3) Dialogue:
The specific characters dialogue—not only what they say, but how they say it. It’s better when a reader knows who is speaking by the words used, the way a character talks–their tone and diction.

This includes other characters’ dialogue about them or to them. The opinion, expressed by one character about another character, says something about both the speaker and the person the speaker is talking about.

4) Interior dialogue—Thoughts.
In general, use this technique less than the others. Though this can be used more in some kinds of books and for some kinds of characters, such as YA, but again, it depends on the character and story.  Keep in mind that interior dialogue tends to stop the action.

The details that are included—to reveal character, to build plot–must serve a purpose. The “characters” are just a group of character traits with no life if those traits don’t imply or reveal something about the character or story. These details/scenes are better revealed in motion, by appealing to the senses, and must forward the story, build characters–it is this process of learning about the characters that interests readers/us.

What have you found are the most effective ways to reveal character? What kinds of characters do you find the most compelling, the most enthralling?


More on revealing characters in later posts.
Character Arc: Part 3 of this series on characterization.

I will be posting about twice a week, generally Mondays and Thursdays, on craft, the writing life, publishing, nonfiction… With reviews, guest authors…

Copyright © 2011 Document Driven

Characterization: Pt 1

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Who is inhabiting our fictional world?  Creating characters…

Your protagonists and villain, especially, must be fully developed characters, with a detailed biography, even if only part of that biography is used in the story.  Your characters drive your story; thus, to write a great story, you have to get to know your characters. 

There are many methods to do this: the interview; profiling; astrology; character questionnaires; Myers-Briggs; Enneagrams; role-playing; and so on. Your characters, your story, your choice.

As much as possible, get to know your characters before you start writing.

  • What are the characters’ three most enduring, defining characteristics?
  • What do your characters want?
  • What are their secrets?
  • What are the key influences in their lives?
  • What are they afraid of?
  • What events in their lives have made them who they are?
  • What are the things that make them emotional, maybe even unreasonable?
  • What are their best traits, their worst traits?
  • Ambitions?
  • Philosophy of life?
  • Sense of humor…or lack of one?

Just as you and I are defined by our reactions to things that happen in our lives, this is also the case with our characters. Does your character react with humor, with anger, with silence? Knowing your characters means you’ll  know what they would say or do in reaction to obstacles to their goals, to frustrations, and so on.  Who they are drives the choices they would make when faced with those obstacles–this means the character will “ring true” for readers.

According to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edit, characterization is the creation and [emphasis added] convincing representation of fictitious characters.  Part 2 of this series on Characterization will be about revealing character.

What method do you use to create your characters? Do you have any key questions that you use to “profile” your characters?