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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."