Mark Terry

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Characterization, Part 3

February 18, 2009
As both Erica and Lurker commented yesterday, you can have too many "tells" or use them too often. My reaction to their comments is that "quirks" or "character traits" do not make a character.

But why should I say it, when I can quote Lawrence Block? This is from his book, "Telling Lies For Fun & Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers."

"It's not uncommon for writers to do a lot of labeling and mistake it for originality of characterization: 'I'm starting a detective series,' a hopeful writer said to me not long ago, 'and I think I've got something really original. My character never gets out of bed before noon, and he makes it a rule always to wear one piece of red clothing, and the only thing he ever drinks is white creme de menthe on the rocks. He has a pet rhesus monkey named Bitsy and a parrot named Sam. What do you think?'

"What I think is that the speaker has not a character but a collection of character tags. It might work to have a character with any or all of these labels in his garments.... It is not the quirks that make an enduring character but the essential personality which the quirks highlight."

Thanks, Larry!

When I was thinking about this post I kept coming back to the Lincoln Rhyme novels by Jeffery Deaver. If you're not familiar with this character, he's a brilliant forensic expert who is paralyzed from the neck down. (He was played by Denzel Washington in the film, "The Bone Collector.") 

The Lincoln Rhyme novels, to my mind, always runs the risk of being a novel about the injury instead of about Rhyme. Now don't get me wrong. I think Jeffery Deaver is a terrific writer. His strengths are plots and plot twists and I accept that the idea of putting Sherlock Holmes in a wheelchair unable to move anything but his head and little finger was a brilliant hook. It's all the other things that make Rhyme memorable, though, I think. His impatience, his sarcastic wit, how he responds to his own limitations with a combination of depression and anger. How, when necessary, he can have a lot of insights into other people--but most of the time he just doesn't give a damn.

So I would say Lincoln Rhyme is a great character... but I have reservations about him for reasons I can't quite put my finger on. Maybe you can help me with that.

Part of the reason, I suspect, is the hook is so strong. For a while there I used to say, "I've got an idea for a detective: she's a black, lesbian, quadriplegic attorney," thereby getting all sorts of "hooks" into the picture (This was sarcasm, okay?).

For those of you the right age, you might remember a series of TV detective shows from the 1970s. Excuse me if I get them wrong, but: "Mannix," I believe, was a blind detective. "McCloud" was the cowboy detective in New York City. Buddy Epsen played an aging detective, whose name I don't remember. McMillan and Wife, obviously, were a husband and wife team of detectives. Hart to Hart was also a husband and wife team of detectives, but they also had the advantage of being multi-millionaires.

Some of these worked, some of these didn't, but the "hooks" were obvious. Sometimes those hooks seemed to be, frankly, character tags. They never quite came to life for one reason or another. TV's still doing this, of course. "Monk" is a prime example, and if it weren't for the brilliance of Tony Shalhoub this character would be a bunch of tics and quirks, rather than a human being. (And sometimes he isn't, but I suspect that's the writers' fault). My response to "Monk" oddly enough, is to feel sorry for the character. He's trapped by his disease and he knows it. For a show that's ostensibly a comedy, it sure seems sad to me. (But funny).

Anyway, listen to what Lawrence Block said and make sure that your quirks and labels are more than that, that it's how or why they have these quirks and labels how they respond to them that makes a character interesting.

Oh, and one last thing. In the same chapter, Block says three things are necessary for memorable characters. 

They must be plausible.
They must be sympathetic.
They must be original.

Mark Terry


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Wow . . . great post.

I keep thinking of spinning one of my secondaries into his own book. Lewis LeBarge was the sidekick in my Billie Quinn series. It was CSI-like. And he collected blood spatter B&W crime scene photos as art and he had a collection of brains and fetuses he bought in New Orleans in formaldehyde jars. But as you get to know him, that sick sense of humor he has is just to put people off and keep them away--his IQ is upper 160s. And then you find out how he felt about Katrina and so on . . . this real loss he has. And it permeates him . . . and I think of his oddities as more of an external reflection of his inner angst. I know brilliant people who keep the world at arm's length because they can't really handle their emotions. I think it's real.

But you are so right about how some hooks are only hooks, and some become this three-dimensional thing.


5:46 AM  
Anonymous Parker Haynes said...

Thanks, Mark. I couldn't agree more. We can fill pages with character descriptions, but until we see our character interacting with his/her world, that's all we have. Just descriptions, nothing more. Whether their interactions be with other people, their environment, their inner struggles, etc. we need, indeed must see, them in action. Still comes back to that basic "show, don't tell.

Word verification: crogils
Never yet saw a crow with gills.

PS: Enjoy both your blog and your comments on others. Thanks for your time and effort.

5:49 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

That's interesting. I started playing around with the new character for the long-suffering police procedural and I like him a lot, but I was thinking that he's amused by the things going on around him, the kinky goth chick that's coming on to him, the fact he fills in for various bands as a guitarist as needed. And your comment here about keeping people at a distance made me think Parker might have the charming sense of humor as a way of distancing himself, as a way of being liked but to never let people get closer than arm's distance. That maybe he's bemused and laid-back because he's carefully circling something that's caused him a great deal of pain (which is sort of what the book's about). Hmmm....

6:05 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Coincidentally the name of the character I was working on in the previous comment...

Thanks! Glad you like the blogs.

6:05 AM  
Blogger Richmond Writer said...

Nice quote. It set me to thinking I gave my character a hobby, carving wood, because his family told him he was the reincarnation of his grandfather who carved wood. This doesn't illustrate personality though does it?

6:33 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I really do believe that very often people hide behind intellect and humor.

Have you ever seen Adaptation? There's a scene when the loser brother says to his successful screenwriting brother something along the lines of how humiliating it was that the successful twin had revealed his love of a girl in high school and she had rejected him. The way the scene was played out, it was like the loser brother had framed some of life through that lens--like I would rather die alone than risk rejection. And the brother (successful one but in the context of the movie, kind of a dope) says it was HIS love to give and it didn't matter if she loved him back . . . anyway, you have to see the movie. But the point is, the one brother was completely comfortable with this emotional openness and suddenly you sort of reframe what you might have thought of him. Most people HIDE their emotions all the time--and we take that as "normal." Some take it to an extreme degree . . . and then it becomes a more overt characterization.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Depends on what he carves and how he approaches it. Does he go after tree trunks and a chainsaw with wreckless abandon, or is he/she a craftsman with a chisel and sandpaper? Does he/she carve bears and eagles or erotic mermaids or reproductions of the Mona Lisa?

6:52 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Only bits and pieces of Adaptation. Missed that part. I'm not sure why I was in and out of the room when we had that movie on. It does remind me how two people can have the same thing happen to them and have two different affects on their personality. I always remember in "Marathon Man" when the two brothers' father is blacklisted in the 1950s and committed suicide, one became a historian because he thought his father was innocent and the other became a spy because he thought he was guilty.

6:54 AM  
Blogger Davin C. Goodwin said...


Great series. Your blog continues to help and inspire me.... a refreshing twist from Jude's depressing blog today ;-)

A nitpick: "Longstreet" was the blind detective. The reason I know this is because it was my mom's favorite show at the time. I believe it only lasted a short time, maybe one or two seasons.

"Mannix" was definetly not blind. He couldn't have been blind with all the fist fights and car chases -- even more than Jim Rockford!

7:40 AM  
Blogger B. Nagel said...

As long as we're talking about 70's detective shows, who can forget Kolchak the night stalker? But that's something else entirely.
Love this post and the series in general. Sometimes, if you're lucky, a character will hop into your head and wrestle you for attention, quirks and humanity intact. But if that doesn't happen, I find it best to start with a person and add personality rather than the other way round.

8:18 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I hate characters made up of gimmicky tags. The real problem, I think, is that the writer thinks of the tags first then develops the character from the tags. The tags don't reveal character, they are the "cause" of the character.

9:36 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Longstreet? Okay, doesn't ring a bell, but I was pretty iffy about Mannix anyway.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

B. Nagel,
I loved Kolschak the Night Stalker! But then again, I was about 10 years old in 1974, so the age was probably appropriate. If you remember, one of the "monsters" was like a VW Beetle with fur on it. Stephen King has a section about it in "Danse Macabre" called "This Monster Is Brought To You By Gainesburger!"

10:36 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think that's the real risk. Start with the person not the quirks. Frankly, we're all pretty quirky when looked at from the outside.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Sandra Leigh said...

Quirky. Monk is quirky, and when I first saw the show, I wondered whether there would prove to be anything more to Monk than his OCD. As it turned out, Monk's OCD simply gives form to the central problem of his personality - that he is his own worst enemy. I want to throttle the man, but I also want to hold his hands and reassure him. I think he's a great, sympathetic character - like another quirky guy, Gregory House - but that's another story.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I love House. I don't generally feel sorry for him or want to hold his hand, but sometimes you just have to applaud someone who has no brakes on his brain or his mouth. And it's clear that although some of his personality is a response to the pain from the leg injury, not all of it is, that there are other issues in play. I also think they've created one of the most interesting and possibly realistic non-gay guy-guy relationships I've ever seen anywhere.

12:35 PM  
Blogger lucidkim said...

Someone already fixed Mannix (I knew he wasn't blind but didn't know who was) - Buddy Ebsen was Barnaby Jones. I loved that show. :)

8:35 PM  
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