Mark Terry

Monday, February 16, 2009

Characterization, Part 1

February 16, 2009
I'm starting a multi-part series on characterization. (We teach what we need to learn, I guess). I think it'll run 5 days, but we'll see. Today is part 1.

In Gary Provost's book, "Make Your Words Work," he provides this story:

A girl I once dated told me that when her mother nagged her to eat everything on her plate by saying, "Millions of people are starving to death in China," she would reply, "Name one."

The point being, of course, that millions of Chinese is an abstraction, but Wu Fong, who is 8 years old and has only had a cup of rice to eat this week is something very specific and very tragic.

We can relate to her at some level. We can sympathize. Even more so, if we don't just say what I just said, but feel her hunger pangs, her desperation, how she plunges into that cup of rice with her fingers, gobbling it down (or staring at it listlessly with no energy).

So characterization is about the specific. Specific details, a universality of emotions.

She Who Must Be Read harps on my writing not being quite emotionally authentic. (To be fair to myself, she doesn't say it quite that bluntly). She thinks my characters aren't responding properly to the situations they find themselves in--not enough fear, not enough wonder or amazement. (We're not talking Derek Stillwater, where I think I have that handled).

In fact, I think that's part of Derek's appeal. He's an action hero that gets scared. He has panic attacks. In fact, he finds himself in the midst of horrific events and he's not necessarily calm, cool and collected. He's often fearful, neurotic, and panicky--but acts effectively despite those.

An ex-brother-in-law of mine fought in the first Gulf War. He commented that when the artillery started going off around them some of the soldiers' reactions was to try and hide under the tank. Even the ones who acted the way they were trained to pretty much were scared shitless.

But how often do you see a movie or read a book where the soldier or cop or whomever acts totally calm and in control?

But in real life, few of us are that way.

So one of the keys to characterization is authentic emotion appropriate to the experience they're having. A mousy secretary being harassed by her boss might be burning with fury and shame inside, but may not be reacting on the outside (yet). A cop under fire in a crackhouse may be sweating bullets and his hands might be shaking and he might want to puke, but he will presumably be doing his or her job.

This is an important lesson, one we should pay more attention to, I think. Make the emotions specific, identifiable, universal, and appropriate. That way your readers can identify with them.

Cheers,
Mark Terry

6 Comments:

Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hello Mr. Terry:

Great post. :-) One of my favorite topics.

I think I posted a bit ago that characters should have their "tells" (as in poker). Like the secretary . . . what's the little clue you give the reader that deep down she is seething and ready to castrate the boss, if only she had the nerve (and maybe she does, on page 115!). I think that's the fun part of writing . . . trying to show, not tell, what's going on under the surface. Those action heroes in movies who are calm, cool, and collected . . . I tend to like the ones that have a little tell, the wisecrack that you can TELL is just bravado, the twitch . . . the whatever that tells us they are human.

E

8:05 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I think writers can run into a problem with murder mysteries in failing to have characters react with enough grief/shock/etc to the victim's murder. After all in the context of the genre the murder is just a device and the poor victim a prop. And very often (depending on the sort of mystery) neither reader nor writer wants total realism with regard to the actual impact a real murder would have. Nevertheless, even in a cozy there's a danger of everyone taking a killing so casually as to undermine the reader's willingness to believe the story.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Eric,
I think so, too. It's one of the problems I have with cozies, I think, in that anyone who's been near a dead body, whether a relative, or at a funeral, or on a job, let alone a murder victim, understands that this can be a pretty weird and unsettling experience for the best of us.

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