Posted tagged ‘characterization’

Working On A New Novel — Obsessed with Character

February 13, 2020

“Characterization is a complex and elusive art and cannot be reduced to exact rules or to a comprehensive statement. The more we talk about it, the more we feel has been left out….”
Leon Surmelian, Techniques of Fiction Writing

“Human beings are the religion of the angels….”
— from the movie Cell

Both these quotes speak to the difficulty of discovering and creating characters who come alive for us, both as writer and reader, in a piece of fiction.  The one from a famous text on writing and the other an evocative and ultimately mysterious quote from an otherwise unmemorable film.  They both allude to the imaginative challenge.

I managed to finish writing a science fiction novel last year, and I’ve been submitting it to literary agents and to publishers, so far unsuccessfully.  Although I think it’s good, and I have high hopes for it, you never know.  Maybe it will go nowhere.  It’s tough at the best of times to get published, and with all the technological turmoil….

But in the meantime, I’ve started working on a second novel.  As part of that I’ve been obsessing about how better to develop the characters that will inhabit it.

The now completed science fiction novel was set many hundreds of years in the future on a failing Earth struggling to recover its potential.  This new one is intended to be more of the present day thriller variety, although situated perhaps five years in the future to give myself as much latitude as possible in creating dark situations.

Before I write about the useful advice and books I’ve come across, I want to describe my working theory about imaginative psychology, simplistic as it is.  Maybe it will help provide context for my preoccupation about developing characters.

The discovery model

I have become convinced of the discovery model of fiction writing.  We are creating, making stuff up, this is true, but the best material for that creation is what we discover in the surprising backwaters of ourselves as we write, or what comes illumined to us at the edge of sleep.  For others these riches may come wholly dressed and dancing, but for me they are fragmentary and usually wrapped in fog.  Yet there is something there.

The rest of my pet theory is that there is a deep layer of our being where reside all the archetypes and our collective unconscious in the Jungian sense.  The archetypes are forces, not things.  There too the spiralling currents and tidal streams of our personal shadow slowly circulate.  I have no idea, for the most part, about whatever the heck is going on in there.  But I’m sure it’s all homeostatic!

The next layer up, I postulate, is at the subliminal, subconscious level, at the edge of conscious realization.  The level where a whisper comes through out of nowhere about a character’s motivation, or the shape of the plot, or where appears a fleeting image of oranges on a truck.  I’ve found that you have to pay attention to these transitory strays, get them down in a notebook or on the page right now.  It’s a matter of respect for that entire submerged ocean that feeds the subconscious level, that supports you.  If you want more to come, you must not have it avoid you for your negligence.  These morsels won’t always make sense or be useful, but much more often than not they provide sustenance.

And then there’s the mundane, everyday level where I struggle to make sense with words, just as I am doing now.

Helpful books on characterization

I want to mention several books that have provided insight in my quest about characterization.  I may have a “felt sense” or intuition about a character which provides the irritating sand for the pearl I hope for, but often that intuition stays static for quite a while.  I want to learn how to nudge it along.

The first couple of books are off the beaten path of the mainstream industry of providing craft help for would-be writers.  They are Verbalize — Bring Stories to Life and Life to Stories by Damon Suede and Unmasking Arkhelogy by Jennifer Van Bergen.  Interestingly, both authors come out of an acting background.  That gives a different take on characterization which I found valuable.

Verbalize? What’s that about? Of course we’re verbalizing our stories.  But that’s not what Suede is referring to.  He’s using “verbalize” as shorthand for the process of finding (discovering?) the most precise verb to describe the character we’re working on.  I found this very insightful.

Characteristics aren’t character

Characteristics are not character, he points out, despite all the standard list of things you’re supposed to know about your main characters before writing.  (This kind of list I’ve always found sterile and mostly meaningless.)

“Words don’t create characters, emotions do,” says Suede. “… The first step for a writer is to nail down the foundation that aligns and supports all the emotion that makes books worth reading.”

The way to do that, he says, is to understand that the character who makes choices drives the scene and steers the story.  And where do these choices come from, you may ask?

A character is not a face, but a force.  The character’s choices arise from that force, and that can be symbolized as the most fitting and exact verb for that character.  This gives you a lot to play around and experiment with.  Get out the best thesaurus and dictionary you know.  Once you find a ballpark verb, check all the synonyms and even antonyms to zero in on that intuitive character shape you may already sense.

The richness of the English language is your ally.  Your character is all the shades of meanings of the chosen verb.  They embody the activity of your character, with the exceptions and focus you choose.   The energy of this “verbalization” can be elaborated into all the actions which the character takes and which bounce off the other characters.  This is Suede’s counsel.  There is a lot more to the book, and I found it fruitful.

Arkhelogy?

Van Bergen’s book, Unmasking Arkhelogy, is a slightly updated 2011 book originally published as Archetypes for Writers: Using the Power of Your Subconscious. She’s arrived at a terminology for the process of bringing out one’s own character archetypes.  “Arkhelogy” is an example, and it means doing this work investigating archetypes useful for your characters.  She feels it necessary to have her own jargon in order to be clear about what she’s describing.  The reader may only find it puzzling.  The book is also rather chaotically organized.

But despite that, I found her ideas intriguing.

“This approach has little to do with how to ‘create’ characters or plot stories.  Rather, it is more about how to find your character and story archetypes, or even how to have them find you. Underlying this approach is the premise that each person carries within them a given set of character and story archetypes.”

You can see how this fits in with my own biases.  So what is her method?

Elsewhere budding writers are advised to use archetypes such as The Lover, The Hero, The Magician, The Sage, The Ruler, etc., to provide a basis for characters.  Such archetypes are said to be “notably recurrent across the human experience.”  Unfortunately, for me, these give no real clue about developing a specific, interesting character.  They’ve become another form of fixed and simplified stereotypes.

Van Bergen wants to develop a capability of finding character archetypes from our own experience, imagination and subconscious.  In essence we want to discover the secret lives of the characters.

A series of skills

In order to develop the skills needed to do this, she prescribes a set of exercises.  These include among others:

— Establishing character facts for the character.  These are purely factual statements.  They include no judgements or personal opinions about who this character may be.  Try to avoid any adjectives which give our slant on who this person is.  For example: “He comes to the office exactly on time.  He wears a navy suit that is a little too snug.”

— Discerning the character’s “universal drive.”  This is the most basic type of drive such as survival, or the need to love or be loved.  Most other drives collapse into these, Van Bergen says.  She might also include the drive to protect and nurture, the drive for sex, the drive to realize “the Core Self” and very few others.  Interestingly, she doesn’t see freedom as a basic urge, which is a universal drive to me.

— Elucidating discrepancies. A discrepancy is an incongruity or inconsistency in a person’s behavior that reveals something significant about the person.  Example: “He calls her his girlfriend but he makes no effort to visit or spend time with her.”

Van Bergen points out that a goal for us as writers must be to find the things that bother us most.  And understand where they come from.  That’s where the juice is.

There is much more but this gives you the flavour of her approach.  I found it thought provoking, although it remains to be seen how able I am to use it.

The Art of Characterization

Another very good book about characterization is the deservedly popular The Art of Characterization by David Corbett.  I’m giving it short shrift here, but it is mightily worth it if you are interested in this subject.  He writes:

“Just as you must untether your characters from predictability by granting them the freedom to contradict themselves, to grow, to change, so you must grant yourself a similar freedom to play the trickster, shift at will, embrace the unexpected, be free.”

But the best single piece of advice for characterization I’ve found to date is this nugget panned from David Morrell’s Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, which I will paraphrase:

Determine the conscious goal of a main character and then constantly ask “Why?” until the true answer reveals itself.  This should pull out backstory, history, internal beliefs, future hopes and dreams and fears, and more….

That advice is written on a yellow sticky attached to the side of my computer monitor.

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