Today’s post is the 2nd in a 7-part Series on “The Art and Craft of Characterization”
Part 2: The True Empowering Definition of “Character”
There are three ways you, as a writer, can define character. One of them is dictionary-like and completely less than relevant to this discussion. One is simply a literary adjective.
And the other is the key that can unlock, perhaps for the first time, your understanding of what the character target really is for writers of fiction.
• The dictionary definition: a character is a person, an individual, who occupies a role in your story. A one-man play has one character. An ensemble story has many characters. Forget it, since simply casting someone into your story does not make them a character in a literary sense. Literal, perhaps, but that’s not good enough. At least not if you want to sell that story.
• The literary adjective definition, one too-often adopted by writers without further depth: someone who is funny, unique, clever, unusual, remarkable, the class clown, a cut-up. As in, that woman was a real character. That Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump: yeah, he was quite a character. Your uncle Melvin when he drinks too much at Thanksgiving… man, what a character.
This implies that all those surface affectations, habits and irritating ticks are the stuff of character. They’re not. They’re just quirks. They may be quirks that connect to deeper issues, but unless those deeper issues are in play, then they’re nothing more than distracting frosting.
Pay attention, because if that’s how you are crafting your characters, stuffing them full of quirks and ticks that don’t connect to the next definition, then you’re not going deep enough.
• The third, and best definition of character, especially for writers: one’s level of integrity, honesty, courage, reliability, strength and beliefs – or not – and how these qualities manifest within the story.
The “or not” tag here is important, because I’m not suggesting that all characters must be virtuous. It’s the level and nature of these things that defines character, and thus becomes a tool chest for the writer to craft characters with a unique place in the story’s world.
Using the Real World as a Guideline
To further illuminate the critical context of this definition, think of someone you admire in your life. Chances are they are a person of great character, they hold the qualities listed above to some extent and apply them to their actions in some way.
With characterization in a story, though, believing and acting are different things. A person who believes but is afraid to act is one kind of character, a person who jumps in at their own peril is another. Both display character, but how they manifest it within the story is how the character will be perceived by the reader.
Now think of someone you don’t admire, and you’ll probably agree they are a person who lacks character. Maybe not across the board, but at least in one area.
True Character vs. Quirks
This realm of context – what is the nature of their true character? – is something that you, as a writer, need to understand and put to work for you.
It doesn’t matter whether your character chews gum in church, wears loud shorts, clips their fingernails in public, listens to weird music in their car… or whatever quirk you find interesting. None of that is character, it’s just window dressing, frosting on the character cake.
What defines your character is what they do, what they say, and how they act in key moments of decision in your story. It is how they make those decisions — the roots that lead to them — in context to what’s at stake.
A person who jaywalks may not be a person of little character, they may be the finest human being ever to walk your city’s streets. But a person who walks past the victim of a hit and run without helping (that jaywalker, perhaps), is a person who lacks character, no matter how likable they may be otherwise.
If you’ve done your job as a storyteller, you’ve put your main character(s) into tight spots and situations in which there are consequences and stakes. How you have them respond to those moments is the defining moment of their character.
Even if they use too much after shave and wear funny hats.
The Inherent Risk of Quirks
The use of quirks brings risks. I read a story once where an all-American hero, clean-cut, brave, generous to a fault, the kind of guy you’d want your daughter to marry, also happened to smoke unfiltered Camel cigarettes. This might work if the guy was, say, 82 years old. But his hero was in his early 3os, and it’s fair to say that virtually nobody in the real world who fits those adjectives — nobody you’d want in your story — smokes unfiltered Camel cigarettes, and that no parent with a brain would want their daughter to marry that guy, even if he was Dudley Doright himself.
Because the Marlboro man, as a role model, is dead. All because of character.
This is called a wrong note, and too many of them will get your story rejected. Because, like the proverbial poop in a punchbowl, it ruins the balance of the whole thing. What was intended to be a quirk ends up sabotaging the story, because the quirk implies a connection to something that didn’t fit the hero’s character.
Sometimes it’s the little things that trip us up.
Juggling the Balls of Characterization
In building our characters, we need to begin with an understanding of who they are, character-wise, and in this empowering, decision-driven context. Only then can we successfully imbue them with little quirks and foibles for our amusement – making sure they are a good fit when we do – and we should never allow a shallower level of characterization to define and drive our character’s path through the story. Even by implication.
Bill Clinton was a great and complex character in real life. Scary smart, brave, charismatic, patriotic, handsome, rich… and, quite willing to look 200 million Americans in the eye and lie through his whitened teeth (as in, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!”).
And then there are those who defend him by claiming oral relations are not sexual relations. Characters all. None of them heroes, by the way.
All of these traits are issues of character, much less so than his preference for cigars and junk food, though the former did end up playing a key role in his ultimate display of his true character-self.
The surface dressing of characterization through little bits and bites of quirks and habits, if that’s all you do, is one of the great hallmarks of unpublished stories. Approach the building of your characters from a more informed, decision-based perspective and you’ll find your story richer for it.
Photo credit: benjieordonz
Next post: understanding the psychology of character… because you just can’t make this stuff up.