This week, I’m thinking about characterization. Here are some of those thoughts which, I hasten to interject, are only true IN MOST CASES:
- Characters had lives before the story you’re telling began and will have lives after the story you’re telling is over and have lives outside of the story you’re telling. ALL the characters have lives outside the story you’re telling, even the ones who only walk by on the street. You don’t necessarily have to know the details of the minor ones, but you do need to be aware of the fact to the point that you don’t write sock puppets, who do what you need them to do for no reason besides your need for them to do it.
- Characters don’t live in a social vacuum. They have friends, family, former friends, past or current teachers, classmates, playfellows, rivals, workmates, in-laws, ex-laws, out-laws, etc. This is true even if none of those people are in this particular story. Did you ever see CASTAWAY? That huge, mostly non-dialog section was affected by: the woman he left behind, the woman he had yet to meet, and a multitude of customers he would never personally interact with.
- Stories don’t take place in a physical vacuum. Every story takes place in a particular time in a particular place. Although every character will notice or be affected by different parts of the environment, anybody in a third century Macedonian village would experience the physical and social world differently than anybody in a thirtieth century space ship. Those differences would impact the characters, their interactions, their dialog, and the plot. There would be different landscapes, different colors, sounds, smells, tastes, clothes, attitudes, rituals, spirituality.
- Because they’re different people, different characters have different ways of talking. The more their circumstances are the same, the closer their dialog will be, but they won’t be identical throughout a conversation, especially if you make body language a part of the dialog.
- You don’t need to stick every detail you know about your characters or your setting into the foreground of the writing. If a character picks up laundry at the cleaners, and that doesn’t have anything to do with the story or the character, you don’t need to detail it. You don’t need to record every, “Hi.” “Hi.” “How ya doing?” “Fine. How’re you?” “I’m fine. How about that game last night?” “I missed it. Who won?” “The Cubs.” “No kidding?” “I’m serious!” –Okay, maybe starting from “How about that game last night?”, but not every scrap of chit-chat. Just the good stuff.
I probably know more that that, but I try to keep my posts relatively short, since I write so freakin’ many of them.
What do you think about these? What would you add as important things to know?
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Eavesdrop on a conversation, taking down every word from the first. Mark where (if) the conversation got interesting. That’s where you would start the conversation if you were writing it in a story. If it never got interesting, you wouldn’t put it in a story at all.