In BookMarc #17 we started building profiles, listing things to consider when we are building characters. We continue with character profile headings here which concludes our discussions on characterization.
Mannerisms and Quirks.
We all have them. Little ticks that we don’t recognize because they are part of us. When I stand and talk to people, I usually find I have my hands folded in front of me. I knew of a man who kept punctuating his speech by blowing air out his nose, sort of the opposite of a sniff. I know another who’s always rubbing his nose, and ballplayers are always adjusting their crotch. All of these things not only make up the character and help us see them more clearly, but they can also be used as dialogue tags. Once you have attributed an action used by, and only by Joe, you can substitute a pronoun for his name, i.e.: He adjusted his crotch. “What a dreary day.”
Strengths and Weaknesses.
As we have said before, no one is all good or all evil. If you create a Superman you’ll have a comic book character. That’s not necessarily bad if that’s the type of story you want. James Bond is a comic book character, but go back to the first books and you’ll see he didn’t start out that way. The same thing happens if you build a shriveling weakling. Why even have him? But if he’s also cunning, ah, now we have someone who could be dangerous. I built a hateful character once, a pervert among other things, and a killer, but he had two young daughters who he treated like gold. We need both sides. An epitaph for Adolf Hitler: he was kind to his two dogs.
These are the things battling for possession of the minds of our characters. It’s the conflict that James Dandy faces in Bloody Bonsai. Lonely and bereaving, he arrives at an Elderhostel grousing that he shouldn’t have come, and yet down deep he hopes he will meet people and it will turn out well. A successful contractor with a limited education sets up a potential conflict in a gathering of other successful people, when he is afraid his language will give him away. Either he brags about it to hide his inadequacies or he is it quiet and reticent for the same reason. Often these conflicts tie back into the Personal History and Place-in-the-World topics.
We’ve mentioned this before. What changes take place in our character’s makeup and thinking as a result of the story? Obviously big ticket conflicts such as witnessing a murder or being brutalized will leave an indelible mark on us. But even small conflicts, losing a cherished object, or having a political argument, changes us in real life, even if only in a subtle way. So should it our characters.
Dialogue Sayings and Comments.
Like Mannerisms and Quirks, we all have comments and sayings we use all the time, often w/o realizing it. Like: you know; that’s marvelous; don’t you know; whaddayagonnado; and sweetie. They can be a single word or a whole sentence. But they should be consistent. If a character says, “Jesus H. Christ” in a moment of stress, we don’t want him to say “Holy Moely” in the next moment of stress. Further, if they are character specific, he or she is the only one who used the saying, it can be used as a dialogue tags. In an Elderhostel Mystery if someone says, “Great, just great,” the reader knows it is Jim Dandy w/o being told because he is the only one who uses that phrase. You set it up a few times with an identifier, and then it is his dialogue tag.
When we describe our character’s home, it helps define the character. If a woman keeps a casual or sloppy home, maybe it’s because she’s always playing with her children. The sloppy home first creates a negative, but then when we know the reason for it, it creates a positive. If a man’s house has everything in place, perfectly in-line, even his slippers when he goes to bed, doesn’t that say something about him? Did she grow up in a mansion, or he in a dirt floor shack? It all goes into the character’s makeup.
How Do They Make Love.
Sex is so much a part of our makeup, how can we not take it into consideration? Does she do it in the afternoon, on rooftops, hanging from a chandelier? Is he obsessed with it, or just the opposite? Do they do it lovingly or clinically? Is it a pure power trip? Kinky, who’s on top, grunt and groans, cries in the night.
And one more thing that’s hard to catalog—some sense of humor. Very few people have no sense of humor, even if it’s warped.
Okay, that’s it. Whew. It takes a fair amount of thinking to fill out everything on the list. Almost like writing another story. We can fill it out before, after, or during our first draft.
Do we have to do it? Obviously not, because some published writers don’t. But if you’re starting out, this is one way to make well rounded characters. Even if you’re having some success, may I suggest giving this a shot, even if only once, to see if this will improve your characterization. Why am I stressing it? Because, folks, after seven novels of flat characters, this worked for me. And if you’re not getting results, why wouldn’t give this a try?
Is it a lot of work? Yes.
But how much is it worth to you?
If we want to be published, we have to put out the absolute best work we can. Good-enough will never be good enough. There’s so much to learn, nobody knows it all. When asked how to succeed in show biz, Steve Martin said, “be so good they can not ignore you.” The same applies to writing. And remember Stephen King (I think), “if we keep doing the same old things, we’ll keep getting the same old results.” The more you put down about your characters background, the better you, and your reader, will know that character, and the better you know him/her, the more they will pop off the paper and walk around as real people.
That concludes our discussion on characterization. I hope it helps. I’ll leave all six parts up on my website for awhile for you to check out. But when I move on to the next subject, Naysayers & Reality, I’ll delete plot. Sign up to be notified, or just check back in every four weeks.
Peter E. Abresch – BookMarc© February 13, 1998. Updated November 22, 2014