Today’s post kicks off a 7-part Series on “The Art and Craft of Characterization”
Part 1: An Introduction
I know what you’re thinking: been there, done that. Because there’s very little about writing fiction that’s more common, boringly predominant and – here’s the rub – blatantly obvious than the vast oeuvre of characterization.
You’re heard it all before. And still, character stumps and challenges you.
It did me, too. Until I realized there is a better, clearer and more empowering way to understand the art and craft of characterization. And that’s what this seven-part series is all about… beginning today.
The Mission-Critical Role of Characterization
Some writing gurus beat the character drum to the exclusion of all else. They’ll tell you that story is character. That plot is nothing more than giving characters something to do. That theme is nothing more than characters living into their humanity.
Not wrong, just… less than filling, and perhaps naïve. And frankly, pretty much useless for the writer trying to actually understand how to put all these pieces together.
So how do you create killer characters, anyhow? Not just in theory, but in practice?
There are five key principles — criteria, actually — that you need to get your head around.
Sometimes at the beginning of my workshops I’ll ask people to define “story” using only one word. Many people offer “character” as that one word.
That’s not the right answer, by the way. Because you can have a great character in place and still not have a story in place. If you’re trying to think of an example of that, you may not come up with one quickly, and that’s because those stories don’t get published. (See the end of this post for the best answer to that question.) But I encounter this all the time in unpublished manscripts.
Character is important. Critically so. It’s one of the six sets of skills – what I call The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling – that you’ll need to understand and master (to whatever extent possible… that’s the nature of the variable called talent) if you hope to publish your work.
Poor, thin or one-dimensional characterizations — no sale. Which can also be said for all five of the other core competencies. Which, in turn, puts them on equal ground for the writer seeking to publish.
Write this down: only by fusing your deep, foundational understanding of character with your equally deep and foundational understanding of the other five requisite core competencies – conceptualization, theme, structure, scene execution and writing voice – will you become likely to publish your work.
The key word here is fuse. Because character infuses everything else in your story.
The Eternal Search for Quality Characterization
I don’t know about you, but I find most of the so-called conventional wisdom about characterization to be obvious to the point of uselessness. If you’ve been around Storyfix.com long, you know that we’re all about approaching the craft of storytelling a little – okay, a lot – differently, a fresh and clarifying perspective that is anything but obvious.
Very quickly in this series you’ll realize what may be lacking in your characters. For me, it happened in what I’ll cover in Part 2, which is the very definition of character itself. That one thing enabled me to write characters that reviewers report are fully fleshed, multi-dimensional and compelling.
And that’s just one of the five primary principles to be learned here.
This series will rip deeply into the heart of the art and craft of characterization, identifying the elements and criteria for execution at a publishable level.
All that no-shit-Sherlock stuff about character we encountger at workshops and in writing magazines? Well, it’s all good — I’m serious, it really is good — but unless you understand the deeper foundational premises that make those points valid — and there are five of them — it’s all just frosting on the character cake.
If the cake sucks, the frosting won’t save it. Even it looks pretty.
In this series we’re gonna bake up a cake that will turn you into a bonafide master chef where character is concerned. Because we’ll look at what makes characters work in your story – not just how they look or sound in your story, a key difference – regardless of how you dress them up or what you make them say.
What’s Lacking in the Conventional Wisdom of Character
In the March ’09 issue of The Writer, a very fine magazine indeed, the lead article was entitled, “Breathe Life Into Your Characters.” At this point you may be saying, sure, sounds great, who wouldn’t want that?
After this series, you’ll recognize most of what that and other how-to articles about characterization as nothing more than frosting. Because you can breathe life into something that is still boring, illogical, less than compelling and completely unheroic… those characters are just lively while they’re at it.
You need more than lively characters. You need depth and substance, you need relevance, a basic connection to the reader that is as real as it is compelling and entertaining. You need bonafide heroes, arch villains, complex players on an intricate dramatic stage.
The article goes on to explain things like giving the character a life of their own (a great tip, one I include in my 101 Tips ebook.. good thing there are 100 others)… show your characters’ feelings (as opposed to what?)… assign them meaningful goals (like, that’s not obvious)… give them idiosyncrasies and habits (ouch!… this is a huge pitfall, folks, if that’s all you do)… give them inconsistencies (hmmm… humanity 101)… giving them cool names (please…) and giving them relationships with others (one word: duh).
Wow. Isn’t your world just rocked by all that? Insert huge yawn here.
You deserve better. You deserve a foundational understanding of character, something that is so rarely defined or available.
Over the next six posts here on Storyfix.com you’ll see it all unfold before your hungry eyes. Five key principles of characterization, all wrapped together into an integrated landscape of storytelling, wherein character becomes plot, plot becomes theme, structure becomes concept and all of it becomes irresistible to your readers.
Next post: the true definition of character. Sounds boring, but trust me, it isn’t what you think it is, and it can be the most empowering thing you’ll ever learn about crafting great characters. It was for me.
Note: the one word that best defines story, at least to an extent that one single word is even capable of doing so, is conflict. No conflict, no story. Period.
Photo credit: Ron Mueck