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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

From flat to fab (or at least believable): The Word Nerd weighs in on characterizations


A. C’s previous posts on characterization introduced excellent ideas and advice on creating characters by making them underdogs, placing them in jeopardy, and by giving them vulnerabilities and conflicts to resolve, either within themselves, between themselves and others, or between themselves and their environment. I had a few thoughts on this (of course).

Characters are created with the following in mind:
     actions
     speech
     thoughts
     other characters’ perceptions of them
     appearance --but with a million caveats.  I shouldn’t have to tell you what they are, right?

There are many stellar characterizations in literature that I could hold up as examples, but I chose Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird.  Rather than give us a running internal monologue from Atticus’s point of view, the story is told from the point of view of Atticus’s daughter Scout.  However, thanks to Lee’s use of dialogue and other people’s perceptions, we get a fairly thorough picture of Atticus as a lawyer, a legislator, a father, a friend, a brother, and as a crusader for human rights.  He seems nearly perfect in all respects--patient, tolerant, brave, unselfish, intelligent, loving--the moral center of the book. However, the seemingly mild-mannered man who appears to fit into segregated Southern society like a hand into a glove is actually a boat-rocker and a progressive thinker. Atticus’s job, his reputation, and even his family are placed in jeopardy when this white attorney from a small Alabama town decides to take the case of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape by a white woman. His children are taunted in school and the case is discussed at dinner tables all over town. Atticus is quixotically and stubbornly determined to wake up the citizens of his town and make them rethink their ideas about not only race, but also about their own humanity and what that might mean.

We empathize with the middle-aged widower and single parent who never remarried after his wife died. He never mentions her in the book. Our narrator was only two when her mother died of a sudden heart attack. She only knows about her from the stories her older brother Jem tells her and from the vitriolic comments flung at her from one of the neighbors, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, on how the overall-clad tomboy was a disgrace to her mother’s memory. Romantic-minded souls are left to infer that losing his wife was so painful that Atticus cannot bear to speak of her. Cynics might say that perhaps the marriage wasn’t a happy one and that he’s sparing his children the details. Our modern sensibilities question Atticus’s motives for not talking with his children about their mother. While this may not be considered a “flaw,” it creates tension for the reader and depth--even a little mystery-- for the character.

Atticus Finch cannot conceive of the idea that such an evil human as Robert Ewell can exist, despite the unsavory revelations made about Bob Ewell during Mayella Ewell’s testimony on the stand at Tom Robinson’s trial. Atticus is certain that Ewell had gotten his anger out of his system the day after the trial when Ewell spat on him and threatened him; and that since “there’s not much chance to be furtive in Maycomb,” it’s not likely Ewell will try anything else. Until a moonless Hallowe’en night when Ewell follows the children home from a party at the school and attacks them  in the schoolyard.  Scout and Jem might have met a violent, senseless death that night. Instead of infusing Atticus with a more obvious weakness such as hubris or a quick temper, Lee, in a stroke of brilliance, makes idealism Atticus’s “flaw.” He clings to the belief that all humans are basically decent, and this extreme hope and trust in humanity nearly costs him his children.

Lee leaves it up to the reader to decide whether Atticus’s idealism is admirable or foolish. Many lively classroom discussions have resulted from the information Lee doesn’t give us. A good writer is able to create a layered, complex character who is, by turns, admirable and frustrating. 

Up next:  The flawed, tragic hero.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Using Dialogue to Characterize

An author can show a great deal about a character's personality simply by what he has the character say.  Is your protagonist a worrier?  Have him say pessimistic things.  Is she trusting to a fault?  Show it through the words she uses to defend a dubious person.

To introduce my students to this skill, I put them in groups of five or more and have them complete the following activity.  I usually set up a few online chat rooms for the lesson, but it can also be done verbally, with one student acting as the group's scribe, or individually, with students creating short scenes involving four or more of the characters.

The Cast of Characters

1. Veronica: Self-absorbed, obsessively concerned about her appearance, insists on being the center of attention
2. Albert:  Extremely intelligent, a know-it-all, likes to use big words
3. Myrtle: Quiet, lacks self-confidence, wants to blend into the background
4. Donna: Pessimistic, gloomy, depressing
5. Mike:  Doesn't take anything seriously, thinks everything he says is hilarious
6. Ralph: Loud, bossy, blunt
7. Paula: Optimistic, cheerful, overly helpful

The Situation
You and a group of people are marooned on a deserted island. Together you will discuss how you're going to survive until a passing cruise ship or airplane spots you.

The Task
  • Each of you has been given a slip of paper with a name and a personality on it. During this activity, everything you say must reflect your character's personality. DO NOT tell anyone anything about your character other than his or her name.  Your job is to SHOW that personality through dialogue.
  • Beginning with Character #1, take turns creating a conversation. Make sure each character has at least five chances to speak.
  • REMEMBER: Your character should be responding to other characters' comments in ways that match his/her personality.
I end this activity by asking students to describe the personalities of their classmates' characters.  Almost invariably, dialogue is enough to reveal each character's basic traits.

Next Week:  Characterization advice from guest blogger Lynne H. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Everything I Need to Know About Characterization I Learned from Gilligan's Island

Any author who is at all serious about her craft would be well-advised to invest a little time in researching literary archetypes.  These "tried and true" personalities can provide interesting starting points for your own cast of characters.

If you're a teacher, show an episode of Gilligan's Island to your students and see if they can identify the following characteristics in the castaways.  If you're an author, complete this activity as a relaxing exercise in character analysis.

The Best Friend
As the name states, this character is a loyal ally and a peacemaker.  He can be an easily distracted daydreamer but is also recognized for his cheerful, optimistic nature.  

The Chief
Impatient, demanding, and loud, the CHIEF is also a charismatic leader.  He excels at organization, recognizes the latent potential in others, and knows how to motivate people.  Despite his brusque personality, he cares about his companions and does everything in his power to keep them safe.

The Charmer

The CHARMER is a charismatic smooth talker and sometimes a bully.  He's enamored with himself like Gilderoy Lockhart from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, avoids unpleasant tasks, and revels in being the center of attention.  At times, he exhibits moments of surprising generosity.

The Nurturer
 The NURTURER is compassionate and loving and is happiest when interacting with others.  She is generous to a fault, her selfless nature often putting her at risk of emotional injury.  She's a personable character who is a friend to all.

The Spunky Kid
 The SPUNKY KID is dependable, enthusiastic, and committed to teamwork.  Her courage and devotion make her a steadfast ally.

The Professor
 Okay, this is a no-brainer, but the character is still worth mentioning.  The PROFESSOR is an intelligent, curious problem-solver who enjoys a good challenge.  Because of his vast knowledge, others turn to him for answers, but his keen mind can make him inflexible and oblivious.

The Seductress
Another no-brainer if you've watched this sitcom even once.  Appearance means everything to the SEDUCTRESS because she uses her beauty to manipulate men.  She is uninhibited, aggressive, and often insensitive to the needs of others.

The Boss
 The BOSS is confident, sophisticated, and commanding.  Because she isn't easily intimidated she can almost always hold her own against other strong personalities.  She may seem aloof, but she has the capacity to be caring and friendly.

You might notice that although there are only seven castaways on Gilligan's Island, I've included eight different archetypes.  Interesting characters aren't always -- and shouldn't be -- pigeon-holed into one specific category.  Memorable characters will often cross lines in unpredictable ways.

This activity can be completed with any number of different novels, movies, and television shows, but I like to use Gilligan's Island as an effective lead-in to characterization through dialogue.  Stay tuned next time for a fun, motivating dialogue activity that has been very successful with my students. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Deepening Your Characterization

Human beings are multifaceted creatures.  Like the yin and yang of Asian philosophy, "light" and "dark" attributes are subtly intertwined within us.  For every strength or noble quality, we possess fears and shortcomings we hope to suppress.  Fictional protagonists seem more real and intriguing when they possess a similarly dual nature.

To help yourself or your students deepen a character's personality, I suggest the following activity:
  1. Fold a blank sheet of paper in half, left to right, and open it again.
  2. Label one side of the paper "Light Side" and the other "Dark Side."
  3. Think about the character you're about to analyze.  Are her most visible attributes positive (Light Side) or negative (Dark Side)?  Complete steps 4 through 8 for that side of her personality.
  4. Pick an animal that could represent a dominant personality trait.  For example, a lion could be used to symbolize courage or a turtle to represent shyness.  Make a rough sketch of that animal.
  5. Pick a mineral and sketch it.  For example, gold to represent a generous heart or flint to represent a lack of compassion.
  6. Pick a color.  Most cultures associate certain colors with certain attributes.  Which colors could symbolize purity, cowardice, anger, or cheerfulness?
  7. Select a plant that symbolizes part of your protagonist's nature.  Is your character tenacious?  Maybe ivy could be used to represent this.  Is he a drifter?  How about a tumbleweed?
  8. Finally, pick a mode of transportation.  What qualities would a Sherman tank bring to mind?  How about a tricycle?  One or more of your choices might even be useful as a symbolic object in your story.
  9. Now look at the opposite half of the paper.  Here's where you really put your creativity to the test.  For each object you've already sketched, you must now think of its opposite.  Maybe you chose the lion to represent your character's courage.  If you decide on a mouse as its opposite, what hidden insecurity might this indicate?
When I've demonstrated this activity using other author's characters, I've never failed to be surprised by the polar opposites lurking within well-developed protagonists.  The hero of one story might be outwardly courageous yet struggle with paralyzing episodes of self-doubt.  The lead character of another story might be fiercely loyal to her friends yet be short-tempered with them when under stress.

The greatest value of this activity is that it can help an author think more deeply about the mixture of admirable qualities and flaws that will make her protagonist memorable and "human."