Thursday, October 8, 2009

That thing we all have to do as writers. You know,

Word Count: 37,116

Characterization. Learn it. Love it. Fantasize about bonking it over the head with a cast-iron kettle every now and then. Make it pull over the car and let us out when it doesn't listen to what we're trying to say. Give it the silent treatment for a couple days until it apologizes. You get the general idea.

I've been noticing a trend in tv shows lately. Perhaps it's not a new trend, but to be quite honest, I don't watch much tv. Or I didn't, until lately, which coincides with my noticing of this trend. Hmm. At any rate, the trend is this, and please forgive my formatting because I am not a screenwriter. Clearly.



**CHARACTER does something SO OVER-THE-TOP and RIDICULOUS that we can't believe they're for real! CHARACTER continues to do OVER-THE-TOP and RIDICULOUS things for the rest of the episode.**



**CHARACTER is magically a real human being, only retaining some portion of their former RIDICULOUS and OVER-THE-TOP personality. Just enough, in fact, that we can recognize them as THE SAME CHARACTER from the PILOT.**

Here are some examples of what I mean:

In "Dead Like Me," when we first meet Daisy, Daisy Adair, she is so obnoxious you want to smack her. I honestly don't recall how long she stays this way, maybe for a couple episodes, even, but yeah. You spend a lot of time building this hate for her, and then bam: suddenly, she's practically normal, sympathetic to our MC even, and somewhat reasonable, with fringe bits of her original personality shining through at opportune moments. It was flabbergasting.

Poor "Pushing Daisies." Had so much promise, then bam! Cancellation Hammer Smash! Anyway, WB and I watched all two seasons all the way through because as usual, we totally missed the boat when the show was actually on air. So I spent the whole span of the first season expecting Olive to try and wipe Chuck off the face of the planet. It was quite shocking when she defends and even becomes genuine friends with her, despite the first episode showing that she is madly in love with Ned and would do anything to have him.

"Vampire Diaries". Elena spends most of the first episode being totally emo. Totally Bella, in fact. I just get a real mopey feel from her, the "angst-y" teen who lost her parents. Then, next episode, she's magically almost normal. Only a few references to "how sad she is" are scattered through the next few episodes. We get the impression that she's a real arty type in the beginning, too, then bam! Turns out she's a cheerleader? Also, Stefan. Don't even get me started on Stefan. Moody, broody, angst-y vampire who gets on the football team and can't take out his (deliciously) evil brother because he won't drink human blood and therefore isn't strong enough. Oi. I'll keep watching, and no, I haven't read the books, but it felt like a cop-out to me. Of course, it is a teen drama show. So there's that.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well, writing tv shows is a form of writing, so I don't feel too off-base here. But this tactic is a stretch, for me. There are far easier ways to characterize without having to make your character unbelievable for a few pages. You can describe their intimate spaces, for example, such as their bedroom, etc. Describing the kinds of thing that they keep in their personal space is a great way to bring together a collage of your character.

You can describe their wardrobe. My MC in my new WIP currently is wearing Italian leather shoes and a tailored suit--- in the South. But he wants to be known as "rich blood", so it's an expression not only of his taste and the perfection in clothing he learned to seek during his time in the Army, but also his personality laying the trap that he is.

Facial expressions. Turns of phrase. There's just something about a guy who's got splotchy red cheeks and shakes like Jello when he laughs that we all instantly recognize as jolly. If he says, "Ho ho ho!" we know immediately who we're dealing with. If he says, "I'm going to kill you, Timmy!" well, that tells us a lot about him too.

What kind of car do they drive? Or horse, or steam engine? Or do they prefer to walk or bike? These little things give us instant comparisons to people we know with the same qualities, and we can make assumptive leaps into their personality without huge amounts of description to weigh us down.

So, would the tv tactic work with our novels? I say, in small amounts, or for comic relief, sure. But all this does, generally, in tv shows, is annoy me. Suddenly, it's like everything I knew about the character melts away, only coming out when it's convenient to the plot that CHARACTER does something RIDICULOUS and OVER-THE-TOP.

The most important lesson here, though, is that for strong characterization, keep your character CONSISTENT. Don't have them over-the-top in the first chapter, and then morose and boring for the rest of the book. You can still surprise your reader, but they should have a pretty good idea how your character will react to certain situations about mid-way through.

You can space out characterization, too. If it comes all at once it feels too much like the tv tactic, I think. If it's spread evenly throughout your story though, it's nice because we feel like we know them, but much like the real people in our lives, we continue to learn new things about them.

How do you characterize your, um, characters?

**Special FTC Compliance Note: The shows described above did, in fact, provide me with products in exchange for my snarky reviews of them by freely broadcasting episodes on their networks. I hope my readers understand this means I have been compromised, and they should run away immediately, screaming.**


  1. My steam engine is copper and steel with brass and wood accents. What does that say about me? ;)

    My biggest problem with the current MC is trying to keep her emotional pain (and she's got a lot from various past issues) near the surface without having it overwhelm the her immediate goal of the story. I struggle with this because, in one direction it becomes too angsty, but in the other direction it becomes way too overlooked.

    I do this juggling act with characters a lot when it comes to emotions. As to how I tend to characterize characters, it's mostly through their actions and their speech patterns. I don't spend a lot of time in any one particular room that is their space, so I don't have access to that avenue. With is both good and bad.

  2. "If he says, "Ho ho ho!" we know immediately who we're dealing with. If he says, "I'm going to kill you, Timmy!" well, that tells us a lot about him too."

    Love those lines. LOL!

    I agree consistancy is key. Awesome post!

  3. Great post! Consistancy is so important.

  4. L.T., this is a timely and relevant post for me. My characters are very mundane in some instances and clairovant in other instances.

    Thanks for the reminder to be bold and believable.

    Blessings to you...