Who Are You? – Thoughts on Characterization

Posted: July 3, 2016 in fantasy, fiction, film, science fiction, television, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Now that Game of Thrones Season 6 has concluded, I’ve been reading various articles and their comments, some of which accuse various characters of being flat, including Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, and Ramsay Bolton. These complaints about flat characters got me thinking—what makes a character deep?jon snow

Cardboard characters are easy to spot. They usually have few or no lines of dialogue, we don’t learn much about them, and they rarely surprise us. But of course, they’re necessary for any story—not everyone can be fleshed out in detail. The problem is when main characters come across as flat, shallow, and predictable.

But what exactly gives a good character depth? An intricate backstory? Flashbacks to their childhood? Interesting quirks? Strong motivations? Being unpredictable? Deep dives into personal angst? Maybe what people really mean by flat characters is that they’re just not Birdy13that interesting. A character can be deep, intricately detailed, and still be boring. Maybe some of today’s jaded, cliché-hardened readers just aren’t interested in characters unless they offer something new.

Examples of rich, deep characters might be: Birdy and Al from the film Birdy, where we learn about Birdy as a child, then a soldier, both experiences informing his current status as a mental patient. In The Wire, we experience characters at home, at work, and during the often more telling time spent in between. The Station Agent starring Peter Dinklage is good example. True Detective Season 1 is another, in my opinion.

I seem to have more non-genre examples of good characterization. For genre examples, Ged in a Wizard of Earthsea comes to mind. The first novel follows Ged from birth, to station01his education in magic and adulthood, to his quest to remedy a terrible mistake. We get to witness his maturation. I’d also point to Gutts and Griffith in Berserk as a great example of well-developed characters. Dragonsong is another. But really, how deep are the characters in Lord of the Rings? To me, Frodo seems to develop along the journey, but I never got the sense of any great depth in him as a character. I feel the same way about Gandalf—we never learn what his favorite breakfast is, or how his mother treated him, or whether he experienced loss in his childhood. And that’s okay. Obviously Frodo and frodoGandalf are beloved by readers across the world, myself included. Perhaps in genre fiction, plot and setting and ideas can trump characterization. My own fiction is primarily idea-driven. I develop the ideas first, and characters and settings spring up to bring the ideas to life. Is it reasonable to expect deep characters in genre fiction where the primary goal is to convey new ideas and/or entertain?

Putting that question aside, how many deep characters are enough in a story? Readers seem to want everyone to be deep, but is that realistic from an author’s standpoint? Without going into logistics of writing, it’s just not possible for every character to be deep. So the question becomes—who do you develop? Who needs what amount of depth? Is there some golden percentage of your characters (10%) or criteria (anyone who cries must have a backstory)? Or is it just a magician’s trick of creating characters with a believable veneer? The answer is almost certainly Goldilocks-esque, and maybe I’ll figure it out one of these days. I will let everyone know when I do.

For my first novel, I winged it in terms of character development. My characters evolved in my mind as the writing progressed, their backgrounds becoming richer as I needed them berserkto be, but that kind of recursive writing, going back and rethinking and editing, in loops, seemed inefficient. So for my new novel series, I decided to try a new approach which is, I’m sure, old hat to many writers: develop character backgrounds before I start to write. This is no trivial task in my case. I’m currently developing at least 13 main characters, but there will probably be more as the story unfolds from mind to page. It’s a slow process getting to know someone who doesn’t exist yet—deciding who will be cardboard and who will have a soul. Gradually, my characters have gained vitality until now they’re ready to  jump onto the page before I’ve even written a single page of narrative (not counting the extensive notes I’ve accumulated).

Resources I’m using include character templates (I’ve mashed together several from the interweb). I also recommend The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes and The Negative Trait Thesaurus and A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws, both by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. I’ve gone as far as describing (succinctly) some of my characters’ childhoods, adolescences, and early adulthoods. Some peculiarities of mine true-detective-season-1-episode-7I’ve noticed: Appearance: I have a problem describing how my characters look—their appearance doesn’t stick in my mind, apparently visual descriptions have little relevance for me. It’s more the flavor of their personalities I feel as I write. Names: monikers have always seemed important to me, although I can’t say why. I like foreign or made-up names, and I’ve spent far too much time searching baby name sites and phone books for just the right name for a particular character. Other times, a made-up name just pops into my mind.

Will this characterization-in-advance approach result in stale writing with the characters pre-fixed, unable to change? I hope not. I don’t think so. New story material has already begun to radiate from these newborn people, leading in unanticipated directions. It’s as if I’m seeing the story before I write it or at least its precursor. So far, I’m enjoying the process, even if it is slow, and I highly recommend it—take the time to develop your characters before setting out on the journey with them—it seems better than hitting the road with strangers.

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