I’ve stumbled upon the magic pill of effective, compelling characterization.
Me and a million other people who write about writing, and/or simply study and write stories. It’s been there all along, in certain stories, at varying levels. And while I noticed… I really didn’t. Not like this. Not with this new empowering understanding.
Just like the internal architecture of story parts and milestones – which have also been there all along – the sudden recognition and understanding of what you’re seeing (and what I am about to share with you) can change everything about your ability to write compelling characters.
This is huge. Get ready to go to the next level.
Like much about grasping and then describing what it takes to write a great story, this is as much about recognizing and verbalizing the essence of something that resists description as it is leaving it to literary instinct or experiential happenstance.
Instinct and happenstance can take decades. A well-worded, illuminating description can unlock something powerful within a writer in the time it takes to read a single sentence.
Or in this case, a single blog post.
Excellence in characterization is about mastering subtlety and nuance.
Such nuances are too easily passed off as talent or even genius.
And while that may be true in some cases, it’s also true that once you can see it on the page or screen you are suddenly able to own it for yourself as you write your own stories. Genius or not.
Nuance cannot be fully appreciated until one first grasps the fundamentals, which are unto themselves eternally challenging. There is no negotiating the order of that evolution.
In my book I describe several facets of basic characterization techniques: backstory, inner conflict versus exterior conflict, character arc, the three dimensions of characterization (themselves infused with much subtlety and nuance), the seven realms of characterization… all within the context of a journey, quest or need thrust upon the hero by the author.
That’s the 101. A class from which we should never consider ourselves graduated.
But there’s more to it where compelling character excellence is concerned.
I’m currently reading “The Help,” the blockbuster by Kathryn Stockett, which will be released as a film this summer. I’m preparing a comprehensive deconstruction series on this book to run here on Storyfix concurrent with the release of the film.
Yeah, get excited, this will be killer.
I found myself hooked on this story from page one, and by page 10 I knew why, even though there wasn’t yet a plot-specific hook in play beyond a bit of clever foreshadowing.
No, in this novel it was the rarest of hooks that grabbed me… me and about five million other readers.
Not all books have legs like The Help, or The Lovely Bones or Freedom.
This is why.
The reader is immediately hooked by the character.
And I wanted to know why. And therein came my breakthrough.
It’s more than voice (though voice is certainly a tool toward this end), and it transcends the first dimension essence of characterization (surface affectations and the manipulation of exterior perception) to drill straight into the compelling third dimension realm, where true characterization resides.
It’s a deliberate, contextual approach adopted by the author.
Here it is, in a nutshell:
The most compelling way to suck us into a story and have us immediately understand and root for a character (or hate them, your call) – the best way to give your story a shot at huge success – is to show us how the character FEELS about, and responds to, the journey you’ve set before them.
This means character surfaces in the here and now, and along the path to come. This is the hero’s humanity, for better or worse. Their opinions, fears, feelings, judgments and inner landscape of response to the moment.
It goes far beyond showing us what they say and do.
The writer who commands this advanced technique of characterization isn’t just showing us what happens. No, it’s so much more than that. They’re allowing us into the head of the character as it happens, and in a way that allows us to…
… interpret (or misinterpret), emotionally respond to, assess, fear, plan against, flee from or otherwise form opinions about…
… all that is going on for them in a given moment or situation.
This is, at a simplistic level, called point of view.
But it is an informed point of view, because we are made aware of how the world, the moment, feels and how it is interpreted by the character. And in doing so, we immediately empathize.
The key word here is interpreted.
Getting into Aibileen’s head.
In “The Help,” we live this story from the point of view of Aibileen, a “colored” maid working for an ignorant, prissy white housewife social climber in 1962 Mississippi. We are immediately thrust into this world from her point of view, which is fraught with racial and social prejudice, injustice and corruption to an extent it feels unbearable and unfixable to someone like her, in this time and place.
But Aibileen is the epitome of the literary hero. Because she does what all heroes do: she summons courage and vision to solve a problem that seems unsolvable, but that must be solved. Because the stakes outweigh the risks.
This essence surfaces within just a few pages. All because of the author’s command of nuance in connecting us to the inner emotional and intellectual landscape of the hero’s experience.
It is genius? Absolutely. Is it learnable and achievable by other writers? Also absolutely.
It’s more than characterization. It’s mind-melding the hero with the reader from an emotional, analytical and sociological point of view.
When done well, it’s the magic pill of characterization. Empathy, leading to rooting, is the most empowering thing a writer can achieve in the relationship between hero and reader. It is the whole point.
Look for it. See it. Notice how huge, iconic books have it, and how other books – even when they are entertaining, successful, funny and/or suspenseful, often don’t.
And then, once you get it, strive to own it in your storytelling.
In your experience, what stories optimize this advanced essence of characterization to help it rise to iconic status?
Once understood, once recognized, you can’t put this toothpaste back into the tube. Welcome to the next phase of your writing journey.