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Characterisation: The Motherfrackin' Huge Edition (Or, Meet Artie, He's Part Blogfest)



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Guys! Say bonjour to Arthur, or as I like to call him, Artie. You know, that bland fellow to the left. Artie is an art mannequin, and once term starts, I will be spending hours with Artie and his species in my school art class. Artie is today's metaphor for the base of every fictional character. Human. Nondescript.

Before I dive into this, I'll just do a bit of housekeeping. First, if you are looking for my Show vs. Tell blogfest piece, it's the entry below this one. Second, if you are new, you will not know that I have revamped this blog - regulars, hot dang. So, third, I will be using this entry for the What's Your Process blogfest, hosted by the stunning Shallee McArthur over at Life, the Universe, and Writing. It's premature, not due until the 18th, but what the heck? I therefore conclude with fourth, I will be abandoning you all until late in the first week of February - I will be in Thailand the day after tomorrow (Hence the four books in the What I'm Reading section of the sidebar).

Anywho, back to Artie. Human. Nondescript.

If you are adding a character to a story, you begin to add things to Artie to successfully add him. It may be his race, his height and his age. Most importantly, you've made him male (Just for my benefit, of course). Next, maybe a name? However, you may need to add different things. Alien features, cultural mutilations (Let's face it, piercing and tattoo-ing are mutilations).

Have you noticed something about Artie so far?

We've only seen his outer shell. I'm supportive of this, in fact. I like to create characters in the same way that I would discover a person. First, you see them. You note things about their appearance, you take in the outer shell.

Then you get to the good bit. The inner gooey things. Think of Artie's innards like the Earth's layout. You've got mantle, outer core, inner core. The mantle is his personality. The outer core is his background, his history and his relationships. The inner core is his very basic, primeval characteristics - his most basic desires and fears. The inner core is where conflict lies.

The Mantle. Your character's personality is incredibly important. It includes their behaviour, their hobbies and their interests. I find that a lot of YA protagonists lack a certain oomph to their mantle. A character shouldn't exist for a plot - it should be the other way around. That would mean that in order to investigate that weird sparkly biology partner, their mantle should affect them. A gossip may just ask around, a computer-savvy kid will Google, a bookworm will visit the library. The most popular head cheerleader who has never read a book in her life isn't just going to go and check out something at the library because her biology partner gives her the willies. Speech patterns, word choices - Verbally, characterisation occurs with hinting at background and general traits. A short tempered person will interrupt and be snippy. A bubbly person will be amicable and use differing words. It helps to try and line up your character's most dominant trait with someone you know and pay close attention to said person's speech. Dialogue is the greatest characterising tool a writer may have.

I find that a mantle cannot have strength without a strong core, and vice versa. Like I said, characterisation is not a short process.

The Outer Core. Some characters haven't got enough friends on their Facebook page, if you know what I mean. And you probably don't. Let me explain. Relationships define us - that is the unofficial motto that I stand by. Chuck Palahnuik's quote: "Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I have ever known", is the basis of everything I mention when I'm pretending to be scholarly. People get us into habits. Verbally, physically, mentally. The way someone may act or say or choose to present themselves can say a lot about the types of people they associate themselves with. A recluse will be socially awkward because they don't have cues or a clue on how to conduct themselves. I, for example, am a completely different person verbally after I've been writing my novel or reading a classic or a history book than I am when I come home straight off the schoolyard. I reckon you're all already imagining the difference, huh? That is how the outer core links to the mantle. Relationships affect personality. Now the outer core is chockers full of experience, of history and opinions that have developed. That means, the older your character, the fuller their outer core. I find that character arcs flow easier when they're younger. Wizened characters are challenging, but fun, to write. They have to have better developed motivations for things because you can't leave it up to inexperience.

The Inner Core. This is the basis of everything. That is how you need to treat your inner core. It's what every writing instructor or informed blogger will ask you: What does your character want? Artie might want a nice flatscreen - but what does he want more than anything? Why does he want it? Shallee, back over at Life, the Universe and Writing once made a reference to the film Up in regard to motivation (I can't remember who, so if it was you, comment and I'll link you) and I'll steal what I recall of their material. Russell goes with Carl on this zany adventure because he wants to help him. Why? Because he wants to get a scout badge. Why? So that he'll have enough that he'll go to the awarding ceremony. Why? Because he wants his dad to come to the awarding ceremony because his parents are recently divorced. Dad problems are a long way from going to South America in a flying house. But that was Russell's inner core. His dad.

I said that the Inner Core is where conflict is. There, the character's most basic wants and fears are held. Now, let's say that Artie wants to become a famous performer, but he's deathly afraid of embarrassment. Can you see how his inner core is linked? You can probably think up a thousand different scenarios that will create inner conflict for Artie. I'll use my own novel, RETURN (about: a team of uncostumed superheroes), for another example. Take my leader, Lachlan. More than anything else, he wants to earn his father's approval. Below that, you've got his want for triumph, for success. His fear is losing. What's the conflict? His antagonist, Ben, is psychotic. He's ruthless and he's good at villainy. Okay, sure. This guy will be hard to beat. Just shoot him and move on. But again: where's the conflict? Ah, glad you asked. This is where the inner and outer cores link. Relationships and history add more to the basic wants. They build on them and become a complex motivation. So, we'll take loyalty to his teammates from Lachlan's outer core. So we know that Lachlan wants to succeed and that he's loyal to his teammates. The conflict? Ben is tough, but he used to be one of Lachlan's teammates. CONFLICT! If I ever get stuck, I find that investigating an inner core will open up more ideas, more possibilities. Their desires control their motivations which control their actions.

I'll tell you right now: I think that character sheets and interviews and quizzes are a load of utter bullshit. Sure, if a character is stuck in a situation and you haven't the slightest, you can whip around and say: "Hey Artie, how would you break into Gringotts?" And he may tell you that because he's overconfident and an arse, he'll go gunslinging through the front door. Or, he may tell you that because he's calculating and quiet, he'll make his way to the very reason he's breaking in by going through the air vents. But the only way to get to know a character is by getting to know him.

Let me explain. I'll use my novel again and take one my characters, Wes, as an example. I started out with a boy - British, adolescent, a teleporter, and your typical fun guy. As I wrote the first draft of RETURN, and then another and another, I began to learn more. He watched too much TV, he was witty and referenced pop culture. He flit from place to place because his family fell apart when he was younger, and his fun guy attitude came from a lack of discipline. He turned into a womaniser and someone who craved safety for himself and those he cared for. He could never have a serious heart-to-heart and he swore, a lot. But he'd put the wellbeing of his team over his own safety. He was impatient and hated pressure. He felt the need to perform and succeed, because this fun guy persona made his teammates look down on him with disdain.

Would I have known all of this the moment that I created Wes? Hell no. And I shouldn't expect anyone to know that. If you do, you may find that your characterisation revelations come out stilted. I am a believer of the idea that the only way to get to know your characters is by getting to know them. How do you get to know that new guy at work? You talk to him, spend time with him. I've been through seven drafts with Wes now. Seven. Imagine how much I'll know about him after twenty? How about after six books? Exactly. Think about your personal relationships. The people you know the most about are the people you spend the most time with. It takes me draft after draft of revising to get to know my characters - and it takes those drafts to make your character seem familiar to your reader.

There are things that I've gradually done to enhance my understanding of my characters. I have one huge binder for my novel, and within that, I have sections for each character. There I put information, descriptions, histories, musings on their wants, needs and fears, etc. I like to sketch them after each draft. I find that after a while, their physical appearance begins to change in my head to suit their enhancing personalities. For instance, Wes used to be very short, with a stand-offish expression, a pinched, freckly face and shaggy hair. Now, he is six-foot, with a very blase expression, a prominent, yet immature, facial structure, with some freckles and cropped, stick-uppish hair. (Wowzers, Nina. That was great grammar there.)

Here the blogfest may end, for now I shall ruminate on some examples.

For those I am applauding today, they have shown consistently clear characters. Firstly, Arthur Conan Doyle and his detective, Mr. Holmes. The thing I love about Sherlock is that the reader knows he is a terrible person (I would hate him in reality) but still wants to read about him. There are those who believe that he truly existed. Doesn't Doyle get a clap for that? Now, Jane Austen isn't the greatest cup of tea for me, but I have to admit that some of her characterisation is absolutely divine. Her protagonists, and occasionally her supporting cast, are distinct voices. Her novels are almost entirely driven by their personalities. JK Rowling is masterful - the HARRY POTTER series was crafted so intricately. There were quirks, histories and personas that fans can describe at length off the top of their heads. Some believe that Harry wasn't done so well. I beg to differ. He began as a bewildered boy placed in a situation, he grew to become a stubborn and loyal man who commanded his situation. I'll give props to Cassandra Clare for her warlock you don't want to cross: the glittery, gay Magnus Bane. I've heard amazing things about JD Salinger regarding FRANNY AND ZOOEY, but Holden never grabbed me. Who else? Hm. Dicken's Scrooge.

Now, for those I am not applauding, I believe they might've not explored their characters as much as they may have explored their world or their plot, or they've dropped the ball and forgotten to uphold a character's, well, character. I'll start off with Katniss Everdeen, of Suzanne Collins' THE HUNGER GAMES. Perhaps somewhat cliche and borderline Sue, she could be excused because she was Katniss - Her personality matched her name, sharp and hissing. However, as the series progressed, she began to suit the plot. She lost her grip on the situation and Katniss became this hollow shell, this pushover that disappointed fans everywhere. I'll mention them because it is inevitable - I'll call them the Para-Girls. I won't name names. They are moulded after one character in particular, all female and protagonists, human dealing with an inhuman world, and as empty and vapid as the tissue box beside me. Why do I think these girls are here? Their creators were, perhaps, too preoccupied with something else (Be it the trend they're latching on to, querying before they've finished, the world and its settings, plot holes and continuity, or the male lead?) to busy themselves with fleshing out their protagonist. Who knows?

And in closing, I'll answer: What am I not saying?

I'm not saying that every character needs a quirks/mannerisms list the size of the phonebook. It is all dependant on the character. When it comes to quirks (I'll return to Wes), he has only a couple. One? He fidgets when he's under pressure/contained/bored. That doesn't mean that when he's bored, all he does is fidget. No - it's just a consistent thing that he does. He may be making fried eggs, but he could be fidgeting with the carton. He may be standing in a line at the video shop, but could be fidgeting with his keys or his shirt. Some characters will demand quirks - I have one that has more verbal quirks than you can shake a stick at, but the only physical quirk she has is that she occasionally breaks out into dance. What does that immediately tell you about her? You shouldn't always make quirks suit their personality, however. You can use quirks sometimes to show a character arc. I'll use my brother, for example. When he was younger, he fidgeted and fussed with himself all of the time because he was a shy, nervous kid. As he grew up, becoming more cocky, more confident, he still retained that odd fidgeting. He picks at his nails, touches his neck, his wrist, his chest, when he's talking to you. It reflects a trait that he mightn't currently have, but that he used to. We'll go back to Wes and a verbal quirk. He cuts people off a syllable or two before his cue to speak, and when he starts talking, his first couple words are loud and forceful. Why? He used to stutter as a kid. Now, there are three points to this. Cutting people off, the loudness, and the stutter. I only tell my readers one of those, the first one (and the third one, but it's apart of characterising another character so I don't count it). When you characterise, you are doing it for yourself. You, in turn, select what information is suitable for your readers. What they need to know.

I could probably go on for another couple thousand words or so. Consequently, I'll cut it off here. If you've made it this far and haven't skimmed, I reward you with cyber-cookies. And smiles. Apologies blogfest persons, I never intended for this to be such a monster. I am so incredibly sorry.

So, thanks for reading. Any thoughts? Share them in the comments section.

8 comments:

Trisha at: January 16, 2011 at 2:10 PM said...

I'm finding that I am really thinking about what makes my characters tick only now, in the editing phase, when I really have to get to the core of my story and figure out what everybody wants and what will happen if they don't get it. ;)

So yeah, I guess I just wrote in the beginning, and now I'm having to stop and ask myself what my characters are trying to tell me. :D

Shallee at: January 16, 2011 at 2:22 PM said...

Awesome post on characters! I love how you mentioned that character relationships are so important. I think that's one thing that's so easy to leave out of our characterizations, but it's so essential to who a person is. I love discovering relationships through my story! Thanks for contributing to the blogfest, and enjoy Thailand!

(Oh, and I was the one who wrote the post on UP and character motivations, here: http://shalleemcarthur.blogspot.com/2011/01/strengthen-your-story-through-your.html. I'm glad you liked it!)

Madeline at: January 17, 2011 at 6:26 AM said...

After reading my novel, I've been terribly afraid that my characters were going to forever remain dry. But this was amazing! It was so great I read it twice. And took notes the second time. xD It's too good to forget.

"Dialogue is the greatest characterising tool a writer may have." I agree. I find that easy, but I have also found that your characters can't be just dialogue. What they're doing when they speak is also a huge part of the character. :D

LM Preston at: January 17, 2011 at 10:51 AM said...

This was absolutely a yummy read! I always tend to build characters with tons of layers.

SariBelle at: January 18, 2011 at 11:37 PM said...

Wow, this was such a fantastically in-depth characterisation post. I love how you compared people to the layers of the earth. I can only hope I know my characters as well as you know yours one day.

M Pax at: January 19, 2011 at 4:23 AM said...

Great! I've learned so much about creating deeper characters yet you've managed to add more to the process. Yay. Great meeting you.

Elaine AM Smith at: January 19, 2011 at 8:52 AM said...

That is about all you need to know about characters and a fair amount of Geography revision !;) The relationships are important it is the mirror in which we can see the character's growth. Thailand!Wow!

Kari Marie at: January 19, 2011 at 2:59 PM said...

Wow! What a great post on characters. I've bookmarked it so I can review again. Thank you for sharing.

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