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Characterization and other foibles

Posted in Blog, Essays

I’ve been working on my book again lately, and let me tell you, it feels great to get some progress done. I’m around the 21k mark, which I estimate to be 25-30% progress, though it’s always hard to tell such a thing when you don’t know where exactly the 100% mark will be.

The point is, Pearls and Smoke is a story told in first person, which basically makes the entire book a detective noir monologue, and as such I’ve spent a pretty sizeable amount of time writing Sable’s character. And while this would be a great segue into talking about her character, the thing is that it’s not really that easy.

The thing about characterization when it comes to my writing is that I find characterization as a whole incredibly nebulous. Which isn’t to say that it’s a fake thing, because it’s very definitely real. What I mean is that while I’m fairly competent at consistent and compelling characterization, I’m not very good at articulating a character.

I suppose that doesn’t clear up very much. So let’s talk about it some more.

There’s a phenomenon when I write (that I’m sure other similar writers also experience) in which I know almost nothing about the personality of a character until I’ve written them for some tens of thousands of words. As much as I say that I specialize in character drama, I don’t spend a huge amount of timeĀ building characters. Before I start writing a character, the most I’ll know is parts of their backstory, the role that they have in the story, and maybe some vague adjectives relating to their personality.

I understand a lot of people spend a significant amount of time figuring out characters before writing their story. Some writers enjoy figuring out minutiae about characters like how they celebrate their birthday or what kinds of foods they like (Chandler, for example, apparently bothered to figure out Philip Marlowe’s favorite liquor and cigarettes, a detail which pretty much never explicitly comes up in the books). I don’t, because I don’t care.

I think it’s a symptom of the fact that I don’t think of characters as people. For me, characters only exist within the context of the story and the role they play within it, and so all of those extra character development things like favorite foods or ways to spend time and sometimes even the character’s appearance are completely irrelevant until they become relevant, if they ever do. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but it means that when I start writing a character, I have a non-handle on their personality and the nuances of their characterization.

I’m reminded of back in the day when I was in a little writing community (And I do mean little. It was very small.) on a forum some years back where we would write stories about each other’s OCs and have them interacting with and fighting each other and it was all great fun. As is standard with the OC thing, everyone had their character sheet where they talked about the character’s personality, appearance, abilities, etc. and what I learned from that experience is that there’s a very, very big difference between describing a character and writing them.

It’s incredibly difficult to get a handle on a character’s personality through only a description. If you’ve ever played that game where someone draws a picture, the next person writes down what it is, and the next person draws that description, you’ll know that the first drawing never looks anything like the last drawing, and that’s not just a function of bad art skills–the process of describing a drawing inherently involves interpreting the drawing and what parts are most important. So, too, does describing a character involve interpreting and paring down a character to their core properties, and writing a character from a description requires extrapolation between those pillars.

If there’s one thing I learned from those forum days, it’s that a lot of people really suck at writing from a description, because very few writers there actually wrote a character that matched with their description. Characters that were supposed to be intelligent and self-sufficient ended up being massive tools who whined a lot. Characters that were supposed to be compassionate ended up being borderline sociopathic. It’s not just in amateur writing, either, because a lot of characters in published fiction who are treated by the narrative as good and virtuous end up being absolutely abhorrent people (see: many current teen romance books, though the problem is hardly exclusive to that genre), which points to an issue not just in writing characters, but in reading them, too.

There’s a lot of hackneyed writing advice that becomes relevant here: ‘show, don’t tell’ or ‘actions speak louder than words’, and it’s hackneyed because it’s true to an important extent, in that the spirit of a character’s personality isn’t in what the narration tells us, but in what they do and how they interact with the story. A character isn’t the sum of a few character traits–they’re a net of interwoven emotions, motivations, and actions. That’s not something I can read from a description. That’s something I have to read from a story, which means that I have to write my characters before I can understand them.

I’ve heard a few different schools of thought, where on one side characterization is all a calculated choice on the author’s part since the author has complete control over the story and the other where characters take on lives of their own and dictate their own stories. I find myself on a middle road between these two points, where I, the author, have control over the story, but have to act within rules set by the characters I’ve written.

Before I elaborate, let’s take a short detour into the strange and hostile territory of ‘out-of-character’. Being out of character is an interesting concept because in order for out of character to exist, there must be a character to be out of. Shocking, I know. Of course, out of character exists in fan work or new installments, but it can exist even within the work which originally featured the character. If a character is the sum of their actions and interactions with the story, that shouldn’t be possible, because by the that logic, anything the character does is in character, because that character did it. Obviously that’s not true, so where did we go wrong?

The thing is that characterization is a living process. A character’s characterization isn’t static–it develops as we read through the story and further observe them until it settles into a trend, like compiling a bunch of statistical data together until we find the mean that we should expect in the future. And like statistical trends, characterization can shift over time or have outliers that need to be further examined.

Characterization is a pattern. We see actions and interactions by the character and see a pattern that connects them all together, by compassion, motivation, selfishness, or whatever else. When that character does new things, those things go into some black box where we see if it fits into the pattern–if yes, it gets further categorized along with everything else the character’s done, and if not, it comes out and becomes an out of character action.

Authors don’t have absolute freedom to write whatever they want if they want to write a good story with consistent characters. It’s their responsibility to read while they write and see if the actions and interactions they write fit in with the patterns established so far, and ask themselves whether X character would really react in Y way. And if Y action needs to happen, but shouldn’t, given characterization so far, then the author needs to go back and make Y possible.

Characterization isn’t a one-time thing. It’s a continuous set of choices, where every time you come against a new scenario you ask yourself what way the character would act and react. And most of the time, there’s a lot of correct answers. A character isn’t a simple mathematics function where one input gives you one and only one output. You can have them act aggressive or friendly or cold depending on difference circumstances, but everything you do puts another data point in the collection of data points that makes a character that character, and you have control over where that trend line goes, or if it changes over time (as some characters in some stories should).

I emphasize the importance of reading while writing because while choices are a large part of your characterizations, it doesn’t actually matter if you intend for characterization to go one way–if it’s written in the story, intentionally or not, it carries characterization forward. I once wrote a story that involved a character possessing a bottle of potassium cyanide, which I needed to have included in the story as a possible form of retribution. Upon further examination of the circumstances under which the cyanide was kept, the logical explanation for the character to own it was for the possibility of committing suicide. That hadn’t been my intention when writing the scene, but it’s still a piece of characterization in that story that I had to work with (or change, if it wasn’t in line with what I wanted).

There’s a lot of different ways to write a story, but there’s two main ways to go about it. You can write backwards–know what ending you need to get and what scenarios have to happen to make that ending occur, and write events to make that happen. Writing backwards means knowing that your character has to be brave, and so writing in scenes to prove that your character is brave. Alternately, you can write forwards–write what you write, and deduce from what you’ve written how future scenes have to go. Writing forwards means seeing your character react to certain events and carrying that characterization to push further events.

Or, put in a less opaque way, in the context of Chekhov’s Gun, writing backwards is knowing that you’ll use the gun in the second act and putting it on the mantelpiece in the first act in preparation while writing forwards is seeing the gun on the mantelpiece in the first act and deciding to use it in the second.

Most writers are probably not all one or the other–I lean more heavily towards writing forwards instead of back, but I have elements of both. My typical writing process involves writing a very broad outline, then making a more detailed outline of only the next few scenes I need to write, then writing. Sometimes I stick to my outline, sometimes pacing doesn’t work out and I shift things around. When I reach the end of those notes, I do another set and keep going. I usually don’t have the entire plot figured out when I start writing–in fact, I almost never do, because I learn about the setting and story and characters as I write, not write them as I understand them from the outset. A lot of times, I don’t know how exactly a story will end when I start, because I don’t know who the characters will be by the end of the story.

(So, you know. Stay tuned if you’re keeping up with Curse Squad.)

There’s a delicate balance between characters and the story that they’re in, because characters and characterization must drive the plot. There should be clear motivations that bring characters into these harrowing situations, and they should not do actions simply because the plot would not exist without them. But characters only exist because of and for the story. Characters are created to fill the roles in the plot as needed, and used to fill niches as they come. So where is the balance between the character and the plot? Is it better to write characters and use them to build a plot? Or is it fine to build characters into a plot framework?

Either one can work–I’ve used both methods, sometimes within the same story–but it can be a careful balance that’s important to be aware of. Characters have to fit with their plot, and as an author, I have to tailor one or the other to make them match. Sometimes that means changing the resolution and the plot to fit characterization as it changes, and sometimes that means adjusting characterization to make the plot fall the way it’s intended.

Bringing this back to where I started, characterization is a weird nebulous thing that I clearly have some idea of how to do, but it’s not an analytical skill for me so much as an instinctual one. I’ll make a lot of decisions in my characterization like in dialogue choices (should they be casual? use vocabulary words? be rude or polite? be sarcastic or sincere?) because they feel right, and not because of any discrete reason. And that’s fine. You don’t have to have a solid reasoning behind what you do, so long as everything comes together in the end (and you don’t even need that, depending on what you’re trying to do).

Now that I’ve written about a fourth of my book, do I really know Sable? I don’t know. I have a better grasp of her character, and especially a better grasp of her sense of justice and the things that drive her, but I’m not yet at a point where I can do a proper analysis. It would be easy to make up some descriptors, but describing what a character is like isn’t really the same as knowing them. My story and characters are my creation, but I can’t predict where everything will end up until I get there because writing is an iterative process, and trajectories can and often will change.

At what point does Sable become a character? For the reader, her character starts on page one when she addresses the reader and tells her story and continues as she reveals more parts of herself as the story goes on. But for me, her character begins incomplete and only develops as I write. Maybe she’ll reach a steady characterization by a certain word count, or after certain story events, or maybe she won’t be complete until the story is. Only time–and more writing–can tell.

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