Friday, July 23, 2010

The Jumpstart IV: Characterization

Oh, I think he's absolutely despicable. I not only think it, I know it to be true, he is the worst person out there. There couldn't be and would never be anyone worse. This guy is the absolute base of a human being. Subhuman, in fact. The worst. I'm talking about, of course, opposite me. I was forced to meet opposite me during one of Kyle Bass's writing prompts. Yes, opposite me. As I sat down to write my opposite me I did it with the intention of writing the worst character known to man. But as I got down to it, and the more I wrote the less nasty opposite me became. And as my relationship with opposite me developed, as opposite me was born, reared and matured on the page, I started to like opposite me. When the exercise was over, I kind of liked opposite me and opposite me wasn't so different after all. It's a great exercise. The next time you're on a plane to Cleveland pull out your notebook and think of opposite me. Also, it's not a bad way to start the writing day.

With characterization, or the development of characters, we can go in any number of directions. There are the natural, more organic ways to begin the characterization process. And as the story progresses, there are the natural ways to develop them too. We'll look a few of these today.

To begin with, a study of archetypes may be in order. Whether it's required reading in school or not, these books must be required reading for all writers of fiction: Aesop's Fables, The Brothers Grimm's Folk Tales, Charles Perault's Collected Folk Tales and just about everything the old Greeks wrote down. These are a much more fun way to discover the types of personalities or characters or archetypes than reading the psychology textbooks of Jung. Either way, an understanding of the few categories a character may fit in is a great tool to be armed with. I am yet to read Women who Run with Wolves by Dr. Clarrisa Pinkola Estes, but I know she deals with archetypes of women. Interesting stuff. In a way, I find a great deal of comfort knowing that there are a finite amount of basic personalities going around. This is not a limiting thing, after all, there are the events, the conflicts and relationships that make a character in fiction do whatever that character is inclined to do. The fact remains, learn about some of the archetypes, learn from the Greeks, learn all the classic literature lessons, and the formation of your characters will be richer, if not easier to develop.

Along the same lines as “Opposite Me,” and another useful exercise begins like this: “He'd be a good guy if...” Try it on the flight home from Cleveland.

Leaving the archetypes aside for a moment, lets look at a few examples. As I've mentioned before, I think Jamaica Kincaid's short story, “Girl” is a great example of character development. “Girl” is a short short story that reads much like the looping of voices in one's head. It's almost an internal dialogue a young girl has when formed by those around her. At a young age, we are formed by those around us. “Girl.” Great.

In Crazyhorse, John Tait's “Reasons for Concern Regarding My Girlfriend of Five Days, Monica Garza,” strikes me as wonderful characterization. The insecure nature of the narrator and his voice as he discusses the girlfriend is funny, a little heartbreaking and totally pathetic. And for some reason, I want this fellow to win, to get the girl, to live happily ever after. Of the two main characters, the narrator and Monica Garza, we get to know them both. There's plenty packed in. Archetypes? I don't know, maybe. Lovers. Conflict? Oh, yes, and that's what makes it work.

This leads us to the next point. If a character in fiction is stamped out from an archetypal mold, then what? We know a character by what they do, how they interact with others, or the world, or themselves. We know a character by what they say, how they say it and to whom they say it. We know a character by how they deal with conflict and how they satisfy their wants and desires. This is characterization. The next piece of fiction you read, pay attention to the characters. Pay attention to how you're introduced to each character, and then pay attention to how the character grows.

Some writers, and perhaps it's the nature of some personalities, they want to know all there is to know about a character. If you think you might be one of those kind of writers I have a direction for you to go. The EPIGUIDE.COM's fiction writer's character chart/dossier may be of help. This chart is a five page get to know you questionnaire for your characters. If you have a character in mind, and this chart doesn't help, you may need to go about things a little differently. For me, I meet my characters in the middle of a conflict. And it's in the middle of their conflict that I learn about them. I guess, in a way, I learn about the characters as I write them, much like a reader learns as they read. It's more natural for me.

I have two last examples of characterization. From the archetypal position, Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles is a mythologized creation of the author's family. When he describes Adele, the housekeeper coming home from the market and likens her to Pomona, the Roman goddess of plenty, we know how the character develops. They all seem to fit into a form. But, again, this is not such a confinement. Schulz describes this little Polish town as a sort of world in total, and the characters within this world are sovereign and complete.

Flannery O'Connor. Need I say more? I could recount every story in A Good Man is Hard to Find as character development. Each story has great development, and this development is from speech patterns, dialect, conflict, situations, and relationships. In “The Artificial Nigger,” for instance, O'Connor describes the the grandfather and grandson so wonderfully by how they look, and by what they do and lastly how they treat each other. It's amazing that the few events of the story can give so much depth to these two characters. Likewise, in “Good Country People” O'Connor plays with stereotypes and interactions between two characters. In this example we know the characters by first what they say and then by their actions.

Development of characters is important. Right? Without characters, what is the story? What is the conflict? What is the plot? When writing, give these characters something to do, something to accomplish, or whatever. It will make it more real for them, more interesting for the reader and more enjoyable for you, the writer.

Next Jumpsart:
Place, Space and Time

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