Characters and Characterization

Let’s talk character!  Two quotes attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald are “Character is plot, plot is character” and “Action is character.”  Sure, we can’t all create Gatsby in the context of Gatsby, but that’s not the point or the objective.  The objective is to create a character that flows within the context of whatever story we each are trying to tell. In the same way, that each of us flows through our own world, commingling with the people and things around us.

As I was considering this topic, something occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of before, which is that I view character, as a discussion topic and characterization, as an act of creating art, differently.  I think that characterization is an act of psychology.  Characterization can be thought of in terms of creating a set of personality traits that immerse well into and work well with the storyline, but none of that is consciously happening when a character emerges from the fingertips of a writer.  On the immensely pleasurable occasions I’ve felt compelled to sit down and pour forth an unprovoked story, I had no conscious regard for shaping the character; those few beloved characters came forth as if on their own volition.  I may have filed them down and polished them up, but I don’t feel like I chose them.  I feel a bit like they came with the package.  Maybe that’s what Fitzgerald meant when he said: “character is plot, plot is character.”  Perhaps it’s a statement about the miscibility of the entire artistic product.

All that being said though, characterization is not always easy and as much as it seems to flow, it isn’t always the right fit.  Sometimes certain character traits need to be pared down and at other times, whole characters may need to be eliminated altogether.  If you find yourself stuck in the process of characterization, it may help to ask yourself a few questions about what kind of character you are trying to render.  Is your character a hero/heroine type?  Maybe they’re the opposite of a hero in many ways, sometimes referred to as an antihero.  Is your character in any way an archetypal figure of society?  If you can hone in on a larger picture of who or what your character is and gain some distance from the details, then maybe you can begin to envision how they may act or react in certain situations.

The word “stereotype” can carry a negative connotation, and sometimes justly so, but in fiction writing, stereotypes can be an easy way to communicate something to readers you’ll never know.  Stereotypes are a shared knowledge that place loads of readers in-the-know, without doing very much work.  If your character is the typical hero/heroine then you don’t have to go out of your way to express how trustworthy, honest, patient, caring, or courageous they are.  That can even be flipped: if your narrator has already put forth the idea that your character is a selfless individual then bam, you’ve got a leader on your hands and there are all kinds of stereotypical ways in which a leader can act and react.

Fictitious characters can have roots in the real world as well.  Writers are always giving fictitious characters traits possessed by people they know in real life.  My oldest daughter gives a third option to the fight or flight mechanism possessed by all creatures: she does neither.  She folds. Literally, down to the ground when startled.  She does it when faced with simple decisions too, but that’s another matter.  I think it’s hilariously endearing and someday I will write a character that does just as she does.  So, get out of your own head for a while and observe human behavior and the interactions of human relationships.

Don’t be afraid to use one character in your story to highlight or offset certain characteristics of another character.  To use this tactic is to create what is called a foil out of the character whose job it is to cast a spotlight on another.  Of course, this is not something that is pointed out to the reader, it must be done with careful adroitness.  Most often, readers are not aware of the fact that this has taken place, making this is a great example of what I think of as the psychology of characterization.

Characters are essential to fiction and in many ways what we say, using these characters, about the nature of human relationships is the very purpose of many kinds of fiction.  Given the importance of characterization, it is understandably a daunting task.  However, there are many useful tools and techniques that can help you get better at it.  The most important thing is not to quit.

— Shyanne Totoraitis

Shyanne Totoraitis

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