Monday, 5 December 2011

A Writer’s Methods: Characterization

Illustration: Tim D. McCann
 This past Friday I participated in a blog hop that featured an interesting question: What is your biggest pet peeve when it comes to books? As I toured the many participating book blogs I was very interested to see that a common peeve centred on poor characterization.

Many bloggers complained about stereotypically weak heroines (The Write Obsession), mean girls and cardboard villains (Alison Can Read), and protagonists who are so dumb you spend more time mentally head-slapping them than following the story (Fiction Book Reviews).

Readers crave believable characters that will hold their attention and offer  more food for thought than what you’ll find in Saturday morning cartoons.

As a former lit student I’ve always kept in mind the distinction E.M. Forster made in Aspects of the Novel between flat characters and round characters. A flat character is built around a “single quality or idea” and doesn’t receive much development through the course of the novel, whereas a round character is “complex in temperament and motivation” and is capable of surprising us as the novel progresses. In other words, you could describe a flat character with a single sentence but would struggle to sum up a round character in a paragraph. (See M.H. Abrams, “Character and Characterization,” A Glossary of Literary Terms, for a good summary.)

As a reader I grow bored very quickly with predictable, flat characters, particularly in fiction that is meant to challenge me as an educated adult. As a writer I try very hard to ensure my characters have a roundness that will sustain and engage readers. Homicide Lieutenant Hank Donaghue and Detective Karen Stainer might appear on the surface to be a typical male-female odd couple, with Donaghue as the cultured, calm one and Stainer as his hot-blooded, foul-mouthed foil, but readers will find they have depths and complexities only glimpsed at in the first novel and follow-up short stories such as “Knock and Talk” and “The Long Snapper.” In the same way, readers are cautioned not to assume that Triad Red Pole Peter Mah is simply a cold-blooded, vengeful executioner. His relationships with other people, particularly with Donaghue, make him difficult to pigeon-hole. The story arc of this series will provide many opportunities to explore these characters in more depth, to decide whether you like them or dislike them, with plenty of time to change your mind before you're done.

Life sometimes seems to be the same story told over and over again, but people are always complex. We can never be entirely sure we understand the human being next to us. Shouldn’t our fictional characters engage us the same way?

1 comment:

  1. One of the most difficult things to get right when writing a book is characterisation. You want to create a character with depth but not have them do things that are unrealistic. It's no wonder there are so many implausible characters out there.