Friday, September 24

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, September 24, 2010 39 comments
Today I'm participating in Elena's blog hop, in which a bunch of us share our take on a particular topic. I think the biggest challenge of today's topic was, for me, not trying to cover too much. If you click on my topic label "characterization" over on the right, you'll see this aspect of writing is one I blog about frequently--nearly 30 posts to date! But I'll do my best to be a little big-picture, a little detailed.

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The most compelling characters seem to have a life outside the confines of your story. They're not like those animatronic beings on Disney World rides that are switched on and come to life only when there's an audience to observe them.

Giving a character that life might entail developing backstory. But more importantly, it involves giving every character things to do, places to be, relationships, worries, plans and goals that engage them during the "here and now" of your story. Much of that present life may take place offstage (or "off page"). But it should leave traces--evidence apparent in the details you sprinkle in.

Those details might support what we already know about a character. A nice guy might show up late for a formal date with wheel grease on his knees. And we know he's the type to stop and change someone's tire, even if it's inconvenient.

The details might play against type. She's a tough girl from the 'hood, but that strange indentation under her chin...well, it looks like the mark of hours of practicing violin.

When details play enough against type, you can end up making a powerful social commentary. Think of Rowling's Dolores Umbridge, the sadistic bureaucrat who takes over Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Her office is decorated with pink and lace and collector's plates depicting frolicking kittens. It's absolutely chilling, because Rowling has deftly shown you the heart of evil--one that perpetuates wrong in the quest for building a comfy utopia.

How you work in those details could take a volume to explore. But I'll give some broad-strokes ideas, followed by examples.

Physical traits
~Peculiar calluses on his hands from rowing crew
~Terrible haircut from her kid sister who's attending beauty school
~Incongruous tattoos
~Signs of past injury like limping and scars

~Hand placed always on his beeper, as if expecting an emergency at the hospital
~Fiddling with a charm bracelet that seems to tell a story
~Humming music from a peculiar venue -- hymns, show tunes, Wiggles songs

~Powdered sugar traces on the dieter's sweater
~Moth-eaten woman's coat still hanging in the bachelor's closet
~McDonald's uniform stuffed in the bottom of her locker
~Collection of knickknacks from around the world

The best sort of details to include are ones that hint at a character's values, passions, commitments and priorities. That, to me, makes a fictional being more than a cardboard cutout taking up space--it makes him have a life that means something.

What are some of your favorite characters who seem to have a life outside the novel? What resonates with you about these concepts of "life outside" and "life that means something"?
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  1. I love your posts on characeterization Laurel, and for some reason the example of the nice guy who shows up for his date with grease on his knees really stuck with me! What a great example of bringing a character to life outside of their own little world. And of course Umbridge is just the ultimate example! All hail Rowling's brilliance!!

  2. This is fantastic. I love the powdered sugar traces on a dieter's sweater. Can so see this and relate.
    Thanks Laurel. Nicely done. :)
    Have a great weekend!

  3. I knew you would have a BRILLIANT post today, Laurel - and you do! :-)

  4. I love all the little details! It makes a character feel so much more alive. It's so important to be able to imagine a character outside of that particular story, as if you happened to just step into their lives for a period in time. Great post, Laurel. Very thorough.

  5. You are so good at characterization. I can just see these people already, and those are only your examples with 1 sentence about them. Great post!

  6. A "life outside the novel" - oh, I love it when my characters start taking over my life! I miss being in that spot! Hopefully NaNoWriMo will get me inspired again. Good point about character's values, too. Adding that to my notes.

  7. I like your concept. A lot of what reading today is to make a profile outside of my text that helps me enrich what does go into my story because of my knowledge of the character. It's a lot like what actors do to get into a character.

  8. Thanks for sharing this! I like the idea of the details making up the character.

  9. Oh man, this is an incredible post! I know about backstory, but the whole concept of giving them a purpose outside of the story arc is new to me and makes PERFECT sense. Laurel, you never cease to give me something great to think about. Excellent post!

  10. Wow. This is so useful and fresh. I love how you show that we can bring that life outside into the story with a few deft strokes. This would add mystique and depth to the characters.

  11. It's all in the details! Loved it, this was an awesome post! I learned a ton about characters, you are extremely detailed so I know your characters are as well!

    Thanks for participating!

  12. I love the "giving them things to do." I so don't want to read about a character that only reacts, or that only gets up and goes to school each day. Give them something to do, and I'll go with them. Excellent advice!

  13. Same with Elana, I think giving your characters things to do is imperative. Back story is important even if you don't use it in th book. Gives you a sense of motivation.

  14. Great stuff here. It's amazing how we're all basically saying the same thing, yet in so many different and interesting ways. It's a great example of how unique we are...our characters are.

  15. All excellent points. Plus, I think by giving them something to do or one of the little mannerisms you suggested, you can show who that character is rather than tell. Ticks and little character giveaways are such an easy way to show the emotions and thoughts of a character without saying, "Jane felt nervous."

  16. Love the idea of a life outside of the story. I've never thought about it in those terms, but the stories that resonate with me are the ones where the characters are so real, I know they will go on with their lives after THE END. And I agree, details must always further plot or character. If they're only there as filler, it's time to pull out the red pen.

  17. It's funny how our character start off feeling a bit like a cardboard cut out, and then the more rediscover about them they pop off the page!

  18. A real life. Life is messy and complex.

    And strangely, I'm craving a powdered sugar donut! (really, I am.)

    Have a happy weekend, Laurel. (I have in-laws here right now...sorry this is so brief.)

  19. Playing against the type is great advice! It's a great way to make characters unique. :)

  20. Wonderful post. So much food for thought. Thanks so much!
    Have a great weekend,
    P.S. Think I said this before, but I love your new look!

  21. Love your concrete examples! The little details like that make such a huge difference!

  22. Wow. This is absolutely spectacular. I need to pause and reflect on everything you said because there was so much brilliance in here.

  23. I love your sample details. Beautifully said!

  24. I think you're the first person to mention that characters need a life outside the story. It's so easy to forget, but so vital to their development. Wonderful post!

  25. PS: Love you're new layout! You've changed it since I last visted :o)

  26. This is great, I love reading something new. Details against type - I love the contradictory looks and assumptions - something I need to work on. Thanks for sharing such good tips! ;)

  27. Great points...I love that you said they have worries...I hadn't thought of that before (other than ones relating to their immediate goals). Nice job...

  28. Crystal: the trick after dropping in a detail like that is to resist the urge to explain. That's one of the cardinal rules in _Self-editing for Fiction Writers_. Let the detail show the story. Period.

    Christine: thanks. We recently had some donuts in the house (my pencil-thin 8-yo's of course), so the image was on my mind.

    Shannon: thanks. hope it proves useful.

    Carol: Exactly! Stories that resonate most for me do seem like I got to visit for just a short time with real people whose lives have been places and are going places.

    Janet: thanks so much. Most of these examples are ideas harvested from people-watching.

  29. Margo: It is fun when characters tell you all about the pressing appointments they have, relatives they worry about, song that's been stuck in their heads. It's magical, really. And it can happen at any point--for me, it's people watching that often cracks open stuck passages to the characters I need.

    CLP: great comparison with method acting. I think it's easy to stop at charts of traits, and it simply isn't enough. Making those traits *dynamic* -- moving, acting--that's when magic happens in fiction.

    Shallee: details have the power to make concrete some aspect of character.

    JEM: Thanks. Not that I have anything against backstory, but a character who has a dynamic past but a blah present is going to bog down your story. I think this is especially important for secondary characters.

    Tricia: Thanks. Especially with secondary characters whose lives weave in and out of your protagonist's, it adds a lot to show they don't simply shut off when off stage.

    Jen: thanks for co-hosting this fun experiment. I'm glad you found the post thought-provoking.

    Elena: It was one of those lessons learned in the revision trenches. And from analyzing lots and lots of great books.

    Patti: I find it especially helpful to give folks in supporting roles things to do. While the protagonist is working toward her goal, the others around her helping or hindering--but not turning off--can add so much.

    Bish: I think it's cool how each of us shared different facets of the shiny jewel we call characterization.

  30. Heather: I think there's a time and place for telling, but it isn't in characterization. Who someone is is most powerfully revealed when the reader pieces it together from textual clues such as how a character speaks and behaves. Nothing makes me want to chuck a book faster than an author who labels rather than taking the effort to make traits evident.

    VR: And secondary characters who are living and changing offstage *during* the story also make a novel feel more real and stick with us.

    Tamika: Isn't that like real life, though? As we get to know others, the richness of their lives can become more and more apparent.

    Lola: Indeed. Even when characters are offstage! How interesting that everyone has picked up on the powdered donut from that tiny clue. It is what I had in mind, but other treats feature this component--Turkish Delight, Funnel Cake, for example. Very, very interesting.

    Jemi: it can be effective, if one is careful to not simply invert chiches, but creatively riff on them.

    Karen: Glad it's useful, and thanks for the kind compliment of the new design. It was fun to redecorate around here.

  31. Vicki: I think there's something to the "picture is worth a thousand words" idea that works in fiction too.

    Melissa: Thanks so much. I hope it proves a useful idea!

    Sherrie: Those small things can add up to big, living characters our readers love.

    Jessica: Funny thing is, I doubt this concept is original to me, but I can't remember who said it first. My guess would be Nancy Kress. Cause she's awesome and writes the best reference books for writers.

    And glad you like the new look. It was time to look a little more dynamic. :-)

    Talei: don't you find yourself intrigued when you meet a grizzled police veteran who knits or a soccer mom who secretly plays the stock market? Defying expectations is always compelling.

    Sharon: worry can be a powerful way of showing how your character is involved in a complex web of relationships and responsibilities.

  32. I love your idea of "trace evidence". Blatant information in the narrative is usually much less effective than a small detail that the reader has to note and then insert into their forming opinion of the character. It requires the reader's active participation, which is going to make them intrigued to collect more clues.

  33. Love these ideas and hey, you gave me an idea, too. I love giving these neat little telling details like the wheel grease and then showing it's not what the reader expects. We think this gentleman was generous enough to stop and help someone, but what if it's all a show? What if a character rushes into a room with a story of his heroism and we discover he's a fraud? I do love twists like that when I read them. Now I just need to learn to USE them. LOL

  34. I love your examples of things that happen off-page that show your character's true, well, character! I think I'm going to have to go through and make sure all of my characters have a little more character, and you've given me a great starting point for that. Thanks for the post!

  35. Thank you for this post. It's a great post with some very powerful advice. Some of the most important, most telling, things about a character are the details (some seemingly unimportant) that the author's woven in. I'm definitely bookmarking this to read later!

  36. Elena: when the reader gets to put together the pieces, they engage more, don't you think?

    Victoria: great application! I love it!

    Sticky notes: I use this idea a lot with secondary characters especially, so they seem more real, and because they can be catalysts for my protagonist. Making the cousin a real estate agent with keys to empty houses, for example, can prove useful to plot later.

    Sandy: glad it resonated with you.

  37. Excellent post! I loved your examples, especially for objects.

  38. Great examples of details that show character!

  39. I love this post. You included some really helpful information. :)