Translate

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Organic Characterization: Another Look at Character Delineation

When I was in junior high school, my mother signed me up for singing lessons. She had dreams for me, and they didn't match up with my own goals of becoming a karate master, New York Times bestselling author, or collegiate football placekicker (not necessarily in that order).

I still remember my mortification when I showed up for the first lesson and found that three popular girls from my 7th grade class shared a lesson right before mine.  The worst part was they sat in the same room, listening to me sing a ridiculous song about onions, while they waited for their rides home.

I sing in the shower.  I sing in the car.  But I now refuse to sing for audiences. I'm also never seen wearing stripes, corduroy, or plaid. I resisted my mother's attempts to make me into the person she wanted me to be, fighting instead to form my own identity. Sometimes fictional characters put up the same resistance.

One of the most popular posts on this blog is Character Delineation. I think authors are highly interested in this particular topic because they want to give their characters distinctive personalities. Maybe that's where we authors go wrong. Maybe we worry too much about how we're the ones who have to define our characters' identities. I'm finally beginning to learn that my best characterization happens when I allow a character to follow an unpredicted path.  This is organic characterization -- letting a character move and grow in the direction he wants to go.

This doesn't mean I completely relinquish control over my story. Just like a good gardener, I prune and shape my protagonist when I need to. But I avoid the temptation to force him to act contrary to his nature. He knows who he is. His choices define his identity.

Not long ago, I had a fight with a protagonist's mother. Over and over again, I tried to make the mom talk to the daughter about the girl's absent father. Mom didn't want to talk. She stubbornly avoided the topic, and I couldn't figure out why until the end of the novel where several shocking secrets were revealed to me. Mom knew things about the story I didn't know. I should have trusted her to begin with.

In a more recent project, I found myself worrying that my protagonist's unfriendly behavior might make her unlikable. She was stiff and abrupt, rebuffing three other characters her age despite their attempts to be friendly. Even though it gave me indigestion to write it, I decided to see where my character was going. In the process, she revealed an important part of her backstory and ended up in an unhappily dangerous situation that propelled the story forward.

Organic characters are like wayward pumpkin patches. No matter how often you trim back the vines or drag stubborn runners back into the garden, the best pumpkins still end up growing on the other side of the chain link fence.