We humans are the sum of what we present to the world.
We are ultimately defined by what we do, as much as how we are perceived, either by intention or omission. Especially when there is something on the line, when courage or forgiveness or creativity or perception are involved.
Certainly there are inner dialogue and demons… which are absolutely essential to deep characterization. In fact, the delta (engineering-speak for “difference“) between the two is the stuff of good storytelling and the grist of character arc.
That said, even so, it is what the character does that ultimately defines their character.
As writers we strive to bring our characters alive on the page.
There are three levels — three dimensions — of characterization: simply inserting a character into a story, at any level (this level, is, by the way, sufficient for background players and walk-ons)… the backstory and inner landscape that explains choices and demons… and what the character does, sometimes in spite of that backstory.
Quirks reside in none of them. You can try to explain them away as second dimension issues of characterization, but at the end of the writing day a quirk is like the color of a car… it doesn’t define the car. What’s broken in the car… now that’s interesting.
Characterization is one of the most challenging aspects of writing an effective novel. It’s easy to err on both sides of the proposition: thin characterization, or over-characterization.
The former is often described as a flat, one-dimensional character. The latter… a story that isn’t moving forward, with too little conflict. Character-driven is fine… character-smothering (smothering the story, that is) isn’t.
The purpose of plot is to give the characters something to do, something to react to and make decisions about. As such, plot becomes the catalyst for character. This is a subtle but powerful insight, and it justifies all the spilled blood and tears about plotting.
Here’s the trap: the writer imbues the character with all sorts of surface traits, tics, foilables and choices. With quirks. The way they dress, what they drive, how they talk, hygiene (or lack thereof), manners (or lack thereof), sophistication, preferences, tastes, prejudices, habits, bluster… and all of the other contrivances and socially-interfacing choices we humans make.
It may mean something, or it may be just a convenient contrivance. Either way, quirks hardly ever ultimately define your hero or antagonist.
Quirks and personality skews aren’t enough.
The characterization bar is higher than that. Until you show us the third dimension of your major characters – how they behave and act when the heat is on — you haven’t done your job with them.
Because characterization is best illustrated — and most germane to the story you are telling — when it comes down to the choices the character makes when there are consequences hanging in the balance. Those choices may or may not align with the quirks you’ve assigned them, but either way, they ultimately do define the character.
Bill Clinton lied to the Grand Jury and to the American public. So did Barry Bonds and every indignant politician who got caught with their pants down. What is their true character? They showed us by what they did when it counted.
If your character is all surface quirks, with no inner diaglogue, no backstory, no linkage between those quirks and that backstory… if it’s all for show… then you’ve missed the boat, and the boat is named Opportunity.
Remember, your hero must be just that… heroic. Doesn’t matter how many tattoos they have or how they wear their hair, if they smoke or not, if they have an accent or not, shave or not, if they take the bus or drive a Corvette (this choice seems to say a lot about some characaters) or not…
… your hero must exhibit courage, growth and nimble quickness of thought when it counts. What they do defines them. They are heroic, possessed of integrity… or they are not. Quirks don’t get you there.
This decision-level characterization — the third of the three dimensions of character — is essential, especially in the final part/act of your story. Because it is here where they showcase their character arc — their growth — as their inner hero emerges.
Remember, your hero needs to be the primary catalyst in the resolution of the story. In doing so, she or he makes choices, and it is the sum of those choices — not merely their quirks — that define the character. A quirk never meant doodley-squat to how a story ends… decisions and actions do.
Thanks for offering up your comments and advice to fellow NaNoWriMo participants, as suggested in the previous post.
Good stuff. Just one quibble from me… if you rely on your characters to “take over” your story, allowing you to just follow them, you’re in trouble already.
Because your character isn’t a writer. And if they are, well, then it’s their story, not yours.
And I have news for you… it’s always, it’s gotta be, your story to tell. Your characters just live (or die) in it.
Such free-form, plotless meandering is not story engineering, and it almost always compromises story architecture. That’s just shooting for a pile of 50,000 words and a challenging prose writing experience, one that will lead you deep into a corner you may have trouble writing yourself out of. At least if you have plans for your manuscript.
That’s the NaNoWriMo I’m trying to help you avoid. Rather, you have the chance to use NaNoWriMo as a means of developing and focusing on a story that works… and when it does finally work, structure and architecture will be there.
Stories are a “pay me now, or pay me later” proposition. You get to choose, and the consequences of that choice are measured in time and frustration.
You do want it to work, don’t you? Thought so.
Check out Page 54 in the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest.
You’ll find an article by me on how to end your story effectively. It’ll be out there in time to impact your NaNoWriMo effort… which is why I mention it.