Monday, August 6, 2012

Character Delineation

People's personalities are as unique as their fingerprints.  They react to the same situations differently, they express themselves in distinctive ways.  An author's great challenge is to make his fictional characters as refreshingly individual as real people.  Some writers refer to this challenge as character delineation.

To help my students better delineate their characters, I have them fill in a table with rows of attributes on one side and columns for their characters' names at the top.  Attributes include such things as physical differences (like hair and eye color), dialogue differences (distinctive words and phrases they use), and emotional reactions.  I've found it effective to use the Hogwarts Express scene from the first Harry Potter movie to allow students to identify differences between Harry, Ron, and Hermione.  It helps any author to do a little "people watching" like this.

One of the things my students usually notice while watching this scene is that Ron and Hermione use different phrases to show strong emotion.  Ron chooses the word "Wicked!" when expressing his surprise whereas Hermione exclaims "Holy cricket!"

I refer to characters' unique speech patterns as "dialogue fingerprints."  If you're delineating dialogue well enough, readers know who a character is without needing the speaker tag to reveal it to them.  A young person I'm acquainted with likes to say "Oh, Mylanta!" if something surprises her.  Comedians are masters at picking up on and imitating dialogue fingerprints.  Quiz:  Which U.S. president did Dana Carvey often impersonate using the phrase "That wouldn't be prudent"?

I've pondered using the Mylanta example in a novel, but also wondered if I ought to use a registered trademark symbol with it.  ("Oh, Mylanta®!"  Or how about this instead?  "Oh, my Tylenol®!"  Nope.  Just doesn't have the same ring to it.)

Authors should also give attention to gender differences when delineating their characters.  A criticism I often hear about romance novels is that romance authors make their male characters speak, think, and act too much like women.  I have a problem with male characters who think and act too much like a woman.  (Chiefly because my wife thinks if a fictional man can think and behave like she wants him to, I should, too.)

To make a point about gender delineation, one of my college professors asked several male students what color of blouse an attractive co-ed was wearing.  "Blue!" they all agreed.  When asked if the men had answered correctly, the women in the class disagreed and named the specific shade of blue.  (You can tell I'm not female, because I don't remember the shade.  Indigo?  Cobalt?  Baby blue?  Aw, who cares!  Blue is blue!)

Early in my writing career, I learned how easy it is to make mistakes when differentiating males from females. I know how men react, but my wife had to kindly point out to me that most women don't punch walls when they're angry.  (Maybe their idiot husband's arm, but never the wall.)

There are also regional differences, educational differences, and age differences in speech and behavior.  If you're thirty or forty-something try using a lot of teen slang in your next conversation.  If you're an English teacher, wait for your next parent-teacher conference and say "ain't" and "we was" as many times as possible.  Watch what happens when you've gotten your real-life delineations wrong.