Craft Assignment - July 10, 2024

July 2024 Guild Meeting

Study and reference Notes

Suggested Routine: Download and print the Discussion Questions -  Read text - Watch the video - Do the Exercise.


Effective Characterization  

The Art of Bringing Characters to Life 

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          Master editor Sol Stein says, “What I hope for when I picked up a manuscript, is to fall in love, to be quickly swept up into the life of a character so interesting that I can’t bear to shut the manuscript in a desk drawer overnight. I want to take it home with me so that I can continue reading it.”

     Readers need to know the people in the car before they see the car crash. The events of the story do not affect our emotions in any important way unless we know the characters. If the characters in our story come across as stereotypes with names–if they are not alive, why should the reader care if their wellbeing is threatened?

     It is the process through which authors create and develop characters, giving them depth, complexity, and individuality. Through the art of characterization, authors can make their characters relatable, memorable, and engaging, allowing readers to connect with them. In this article, we will explore the various techniques and methods used in the art of characterization in literature, and how they contribute to the overall impact of a story.

     One of the key elements of characterization is the creation of well-rounded characters. A well-rounded character is one that is multi-dimensional, with a unique personality, motivations, and flaws. These characters feel like real people, with their own strengths and weaknesses, desires and fears. By giving characters depth and complexity, authors can make them believable and engaging to readers.

     Authors use a variety of techniques to develop well-rounded characters. One common method is using character traits. Character traits are the qualities that define a character's personality, such as honesty, courage, or intelligence. By giving characters specific traits, authors can create a clear picture of who they are and how they will behave in different situations.

     Another important aspect of characterization is character development. Character development refers to the changes and growth that characters undergo throughout the course of a story. Characters should not remain static; they should evolve, learn, and change as they face challenges and overcome obstacles. This growth adds depth to characters and makes them more dynamic and interesting to readers.

     Authors can also use dialogue and actions to reveal character traits and motivations. The way a character speaks and acts can provide valuable insights into their personality and inner thoughts. By paying attention to how characters interact with others and respond to different situations, readers can gain a deeper understanding of who they are and what drives them.

     In addition to creating well-rounded characters, authors also use character archetypes* to add depth and complexity to their stories. Character archetypes are universal symbols or patterns that represent certain traits or qualities. By drawing on these archetypes, authors can create characters that resonate with readers on a subconscious level.

     For example, the hero archetype represents courage, strength, and a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. By incorporating this archetype into a character, authors can create a protagonist that embodies these qualities, making them a compelling and inspiring figure for readers to root for.

     On the other hand, the villain archetype represents evil, deception, and a desire for power. By creating a character that embodies this archetype, authors can introduce conflict and tension into the story, providing a formidable adversary for the protagonist to overcome.

     Character archetypes can be used in combination with other characterization techniques to create complex and compelling characters. By blending different archetypes and traits, authors can develop characters that are both familiar and unique, making them stand out in the minds of readers.

     Another important aspect of characterization is the use of character relationships. Characters do not exist in isolation; they interact with other characters in the story, forming relationships that can shape their actions and decisions. By exploring these relationships, authors can reveal new facets of their characters and deepen the emotional impact of the story.

     Character relationships can take many forms, from friendships and romances to rivalries and conflicts. Each relationship adds layers to the characters involved, showing how they are influenced by others and how they, in turn, influence those around them. By exploring these dynamics, authors can create rich and nuanced characters that feel authentic and relatable.

 

       How does a writer characterize in simple ways?

 

     What we do in life is lazy. We say the first thing that comes into our heads. Think of the ticket taker at a movie house. He sees people passing in a stream. He can only make quick generalizations. The man is tall, the woman is skinny. How does the writer deal with similar facts?

 

     “Frank is so tall, he entered the room as if he expected a lintel to hit him, conveying the image of a man with a perpetually stiff neck.”

 

     The man is not just tall he is being characterized through an action. What about the skinny woman? How does a writer deal with that fact?

 

     “She always stands sideways so people can see how thin she is.”

 

     Again, the author is not just describing; he is characterizing by action. We individualize by seeing characters doing things and saying things, and not by the author telling us about them. Authors never stop telling the story to characterize; they avoid telling the reader what the character is like, and let the reader see the character talking and doing things.

 

       Here’s an example from the novel “Crossing Blood”:

 

     “Once we looked in Patsy’s window and saw her in her half-slip... First, she curled her eyelashes, holding a mirror in her hand. Then out of the blue she picked up a lipstick, smeared it on and kissed the mirror. Kissed it. She made little kiss marks and looked them over real close, studying them. She was dead serious about it. Jimmy got mad and made us get down off the trash cans and stop looking. He swatted Donald to make the rest of us stop laughing at Patsy.”

 

     The same author introduced a character called Skippy. The author doesn’t tell us Skippy was brave; but lets the readers experience Skippy’s bravery through an action:

 

     “Skippy will pick up a snake as quick as he will a cat. He will let one crawl on his neck and down his arm, a black snake, until me and Roy go crazy watching them. More than once he let me and Roy hold one, which we did, but we had to practically quit breathing to do it.”

 

        Exaggeration is another technique for characterizing:

 

     “Laverne weighed two tons naked.”

     No one believes Laverne weighed 4000 pounds. In speech, we hear it said about an object that “it weighed a ton.” We exaggerate constantly. It’s a way of communicating quickly, and often effectively.

     Comparison to a known quantity or quality is sometimes a useful form of exaggeration.

 

     “Archie was Wilt Chamberlain tall.”

 

     “Bruce waltzed me around the dance floor. If I’d shut my eyes, he could’ve been Fred Astaire.

 

     Reproving someone who is late a layman may write, “I’ve been waiting a long time for you.” That doesn’t characterize the speaker or the latecomer. “I’ve been waiting forever for you” is an exaggeration–and it’s also a cliché. It doesn’t characterize. Here’s how an experienced writer did it:

 

     “Girl, my fingernails could have grown an inch waiting for you.”

 

     When an author needed to introduce a character who would prove to be influential, a tough lawyer who is short and bald, he wrote:

 

     “This distributor has a lawyer so short you wouldn’t be able to see him if he Sat behind the desk. And he’s Yul Brynner bald. But when he shakes your hand, you know this dude could squeeze an apple into apple juice.

 

     It’s not the author talking, it’s a character talking, and therefore an acceptable exaggeration. It also characterizes the speaker.

     You can characterize more than one person at a time. You can characterize the person speaking as well as the one being spoken about.

     If there’s a common error among inexperienced writers, it’s that they say too much, they try to characterize with an excess of detail instead of finding the word or phrase that characterizes best.

     The word you select depends upon the circumstances under which you introduced the character. For instance, when you first see a character at any distance, physical size makes an instant impression. If you are seeing a character at a closer range, you often notice the eyes first. What inexperienced writers often do is give us the color or shape of the eyes. That’s not as effective as conveying how the character uses his eyes. If on meeting a person he averts his eyes, it usually implies something negative. Good eye contact is perceived as positive. Unrelenting eye contact can be negative to the shy or withdrawn character:

 

     “I couldn’t make eye contact with her. She was looking for invisible spots on the wall.”

 

     She said, “I don’t love you anymore,” but her eyes belied her words.

 

     “She didn’t answer me. She just continued to glare as if her eyes said it all.”

 

     In conclusion, the art of characterization is a vital component of literature that brings fictional figures to life. By creating well-rounded characters, developing their personalities and motivations, and exploring their relationships with others, authors can craft stories that resonate with readers on a deep and emotional level. Through the use of character traits, development, archetypes, and relationships, authors can create characters that are memorable, engaging, and ultimately, unforgettable.


*An article discussing archetypes that may be beneficial for readers is available under BONUS in the menu above.


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