Archive | June 10, 2011

Guest Post:Characterization

The following is a guest post from Sharon T. Rose, a fellow weblit author. Sharon can be found on Twitter at @sharontherose


If you want to write, you have to be paying attention. This goes for anything you want to write, whether it’s a novel, a comic, a game, a song, or what-have-you. Pay attention to real life, because your experiences are the best research you could ever do.

Now, this is not carte blanche to put all your friends and family into your writing; odds are that someone will be upset at how you choose to portray them. However, the way that your acquaintances do things will be invaluable to making your writing more realistic. Every person has unique mannerisms and habits that make them who they are. Does your writing have its own idiosyncrasies to make it come alive?

Say you’re writing something that’s supposed to make the reader feel anger. It’s a scene of betrayal, treason, stupidity, violence, whatever. It’s an intense scene, but how do you make sure that the audience really gets into the heart of the action? Maybe it’s the grin on one person’s face. Maybe it’s a peculiar word choice. A change in body language. A gesture. An attitude, a glance. What does an angry person look like? Pay attention to how real people express themselves.

Example: A friend of mine was going through a horrible situation. As I gave her friendship and comfort, she poured out her heart. Anger, fear, pain, and determination filled her voice, creased her brows, flavored the tears on her lashes, trembled her voice, shook her hands. She slumped in her seat, gripped her fists, worked her jaw, pierced the night with the fire in her gaze. She ranged from terror to despair to rage to acceptance to resolve. So much poured through her heart and mind that she became physically exhausted, yet her hands twitched whenever she thought about it.

Of course, I stayed focused on my friend and on being with her through the event, but a corner of my mind couldn’t hold back from thinking about ways to apply this observation to my writing. If I don’t give my readers a figurative knife, writing that “the air was thick with tension” won’t cut it. The best fiction is based in reality, founded on things that we know and can experience. The more variation in the experience, the more realistic it is and the more the audience will identify it.

Everyone has a different approach to life. Some people are head-on, no-nonsense. If you’re writing that character, add detail to emphasizes that. Not “He was a no-nonsense kind of person”. Tell us how he’s no-nonsense, show us how he becomes impatient with emotion or excessive details or disorganization. As you spend time with a real person who is “head-on”, observe how that disposition becomes evident. Does the person talk about it all the time, complaining or offering advice? Does the person simply act, straightening all the french fries and ordering them by size? What proof is there of the attitude?

Another example: Artwork. Ever use a coloring book? Pages of printed line art just waiting to be colored in. The lines give us definition, tell us what the image is and where to apply our crayons. But it’s boring. It lacks depth and life. Once you started shading, adding colors and hatchmarks and scribbles, the picture suddenly becomes more real. Line art is like pure logic, setting boundaries and giving basic definition. But it isn’t complete. Shading and colors are like emotions, making a picture or situation more real. Yet it’s hard to understand an image that’s just a bunch of colors and squiggles. You need both.

The audience needs to know that the character is so tall with this hair and that attitude. That’s the logic, the outline. But it’s the mannerisms, the choice of words and the little motions that color in all the detail and bring the readers right where you want them to be. Yes, you can get the picture with just lines or just colors, but it’s better with both.

And remember to never use 10,000 words when 10 will do. A few carefully chosen details often give more punch than a chapter’s worth. Make every detail count; make the most of every word. And make the most of what life offers you.

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