Monday, April 4, 2016

“C” Cardiology Is Not the Subject of This Blog Post…

By David Sharp


…Because that would be ridiculous. This is not a medical blog. It’s about writing. So, of all the subjects you may have been anticipating, you can cross cardiology right off the list. I didn’t want you to be misled. Also, I’m supposed to start the title of this post with the letter C, somehow. Done and done.

This is Dr. Russell. He is a cardiologist.
That's an important line of work.
Sadly, this post has nothing to do with him.
Sorry, Dr. Russell. Maybe next time.
Now for the actual topic, I thought I would talk about characterization this week. I suppose I could have titled this blog Characterization and Stuff, but I didn’t for the obvious reason that… Actually, why didn’t I call it that? Let’s not worry about it. It’ll work out somehow.

Who doesn’t like a dynamic character? I rarely remember anything about a great book better than its characters. Somehow they transform from words in Times New Roman to people I can see in my mind, and often care about more than I care about getting to bed on time. More than I care about tidying the house. Dare I say, more than getting my blog post written? When my favorite characters are in trouble, I can’t just leave them hanging. Things aren’t going to get better if I don’t read on. And so laundry and dishes are going to have to wait!

As a writer, I want to have characters that have that effect on others. I want people to care about my characters like they were real people. But it doesn’t just happen. There are tons of books out there with characters that never evolve past the literary version of a stick man for me. What is it about the great ones that makes them so real? There are books upon books on the subject of characterization, and I’ve read so… many… of… them.

There’s a lot of advice out there to sift through. When it works, it feels just like meeting a real person. When it doesn’t work, it feels a lot like a migraine. So, here are the results of some of my own experiments:


Now, just fill out this small stack of forms,
please, and your character will be
with you shortly.
For some writers, it helps to create document profiles with all their characters’ facts and backgrounds and motives. That’s handy for keeping facts straight, but filling out forms on a character has never brought one to life for me. I find myself deliberating about how much a character weighs or some other inane detail that will never get a mention in the manuscript. I do like to keep notes on characters, but I prefer to flesh them out as I go. It seems more natural that way. When I first meet a real person, I don’t immediately grill him about his backstory. I learn things as I continue to know him. Last names may remain a mystery for months. I prefer to learn about my characters that way too. One fact at a time.

On a scale of one to ten, how likely are
you to discover that your uncle has
murdered your father, the king, and
then immediately married your mother? 
Another method I have tried is taking personality psychology tests on my characters’ behalf. I’m not talking about Facebook quizzes. I don’t need to know what flavor of Skittle somebody is before I write about her. Meyer’s-Briggs and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter are full of little insights for how a given personality functions. My favorite is a book titled The Animal In You by Roy Feinson. The author catalogs forty-five personality types as members of the animal kingdom. It stands out for writing purposes because it includes the jerks of the world- crocodiles and vultures and shrews. Some of those other tests are too nice. But as fun as this is, personality profiling is not what brings a character to life for me either. When I meet somebody, I don’t instantly calculate his Meyer’s Briggs combination. (Well, maybe I do. But you’ll never know.)


Both methods above become cumbersome for me. I feel like I’m trying to remember too many rules about how my character should and shouldn’t act. But if I know this guy, shouldn’t some of that be more second nature?

This is Dr. Russell. He is a character from
a supernatural thriller about a
cardiologist who saves the woman he
loves by obtaining a heart from the black
market and is later haunted by
its previous owner.
So, what then? When does a character become real? The best thing I have ever tried is deceptively simple. Start by asking a character What is it that you want? Maybe the character knows that answer. Maybe he only thinks he does. Maybe the answer changes as the story progresses. Whatever the case, that’s the question that opens the door. All the rest is peripheral. Once we’ve got that out of the way, we can get to the serious work of telling a great story. We learn a lot more about each other as we go. I like to reserve the right for my characters to surprise me. And they certainly do! As soon as I stop worrying about how I don’t know when my protagonist’s birthday is, I can focus on the heart of characterization. Before I know it, that heart starts beating. See there? I guess it really was about cardiology after all.

What about you? Have any strategies worked or not worked to bring your characters to life? Feel free to share in the comments.

2 comments:

Nicola said...

Lots of good advice there. I love working with my characters.

Deborah Nielsen said...

Great characters take on a life of their own and, as a reader, I wish they were real people I could meet. I'd like to run into Joe Pickett or Sheriff Walt Longmire or Vicky Holden and Father O'Malley. However, those vibrant, lifelike characters die when the author dies. I was heartbroken when Louis L'Amour passed away; no more stories about the Sacketts. I miss them. You know you've hit it when your readers ask you how so-and-so is doing and have you talked with them lately.

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