Monday, November 26, 2012

Posted by Laurel Garver on Monday, November 26, 2012 28 comments
Is there such a thing as too much characterization? By that, I mean, can you invest too much time into developing some characters to the point of derailing a project?

I'd argue that yes, you can. Not every character warrants developing a back story, motivation, wound. If you did take the time to do that for every walk-on, a story could quickly become tangent-riddled every time someone new entered a scene.
Look at ME! No, me! Me! Me! Me!

Granted, most writers have the opposite problem. They don't develop even the primary characters deeply enough. But both the "too many stars" and flat characterization problem can begin to be addressed by taking one initial step.

You might call the process "assembling the cast." Basically, it entails listing all your story's characters and prioritizing them in terms of their importance to the story.

Primary characters 

Each of the main actors who appear in 3/4 of the story scenes should have a "characterization work up" that includes a basic life history (key events), a relationship web, and a psychological make up that includes desires, fears, and core values. Gather some telling details for each primary character. Those might include hobbies, taste in music or film, appearance, home environment.

It's easy to get carried away developing telling details at the expense of doing the deeper psychological work. Better to invest your time in knowing how family of origin issues and environment and education shape a character than furnishing apartments, creating music playlists and the like. It's the characters' underlying drives that fuel conflict, after all, not curtain colors, or wardrobe, or the current soundtrack. And without conflict, you have no story.

Secondary characters 

Second tier characters influence the primary characters and course of the plot, but appear less frequently. The key thing secondary characters need is a relationship web. They are connectors of the primary characters. Some psychological development can make their relationships more realistic, and telling details make them stand out from one another. Secondary characters might include a trusted friend, a coworker, a close sibling, parents or other near relatives. They lay emotional claim to the main characters and offer help and hindrance as the protagonist works toward his or her goal.

Tertiary characters 

Third tier characters might or might not warrant being named, depending on the role they play. Here are some tertiary functions and the types of players needed:

Catalyst
Tertiary catalysts are triggers who enter scenes in order to cause change. A tertiary catalyst might be a pacing aid, like the comic relief character who releases tension whenever he appears. Or she might be a functionary whose official duties bring change, like a police officer or an EMT.

Set dressing 
In film, they're called "extras"--the assorted faces that people a locale: patients in a waiting room, thugs loitering in a bad neighborhood, cliques in the school cafeteria, commuters, store clerks, security guards. Give some thought about what emotions they might evoke in your primary characters, such as a sense of security, fear, claustrophobia, or self-consciousness. Develop telling details to bring out those emotions. For example, when your protagonist is crammed into an elevator, we feel her anxiety through her reactions to fellow riders' cloying perfume, menacing umbrellas, over-sized backpacks.

Verisimilitude 
These characters lend reality to a story by filling small parts, somewhere between catalyst and set dressing. They have a handful of lines throughout the story. They exist to further widen our understanding of the main character and to create milieu. In a YA story, for example, this might be a younger sibling who creates obstacles and has some comic lines, or a secondary character's parent who is the polar opposite of the protagonist's parents.

image credit: arjmage at morguefile.com

Do you develop characters before you write or as you write? How might a bit of character planning and prioritization aid your drafting process?

28 comments:

  1. Great post. I know lots of writers who do full workups of their main characters before they start drafting.

    But I tend to write by the seat of my pants, so I discover the characters in the first draft. Though in some sense, they are already fully formed with distinct desires, issues, etc. It's just me as the author who discovers who the characters are as the plot moves forward and the characters do and say things that I hadn't anticipated--when they do I discover more of their secrets. (Does that make sense?)

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    1. You'll notice I didn't say WHEN this needs to happen, only that it needs to happen at some point in the process. Pantsers may find it most helpful to do this after completing a draft, but before diving into a second draft. Once you've let a bunch of characters emerge, you can then decide who's important, who isn't, and then develop further each level of character.

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  2. Wonderful post. I like to know "everything" about even my insignificant characters...but only a hundredth of what I dream up makes it into the story!

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    1. I know I feel very tempted to overdevelop minor characters, and have had to channel that into going deeper with the main characters. As you say, much of what I figure out and dream will not appear in the story itself. I'm also learning what kinds of "everything" are most important to building real characters. Favorite color doesn't tell me as much about someone as a fear of boats because her uncle drowned at sea, for example.

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  3. Good post. Capturing a character so the reader has a strong idea of who they are is an art in itself.

    mood
    Moody Writing

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    1. Indeed it is. Writers who do the most gripping characterization show the deeper psychology rather than just surface tastes and appearance.

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  4. Excellent post, Laurel. I tend to do a little bit of character work-up before writing, but just the basics so I don't forget I've given them red hair, or made them 25 instead of 22. I tend to develop them more fully as I write...trying to get the image out of my head. Like a movie, you know. It's hard sometimes.

    And most of my secondary and sometimes even my terciary characters end up getting their own story, so I get to develop them at a later date.

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    1. As I'd commented to Connie, the cast assembling process can always happen between first and second draft. It's not always clear for pantsers which characters will emerge as most important. But once the first draft is done, it's essential to create hierarchies so that characters seen twice aren't upstaging the main players, and that the most important players get more attention and development in revision.

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  5. What a timely post. I'm always having to catch myself on this. No one cares what the cashier's wound is if you never see her again. :)

    Great post!

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    1. What matters most from those set dressing characters is how your main characters react to them. But a cashier could act as a catalyst too, and a streamlined backstory for such a tertiary character could make that brief interaction really cool. But its a matter of using time well, and it always pays off to invest most in deeply developing main characters.

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  6. phew...lots to learn from you! well said

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  7. Oh great character type dictionary too.

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    1. Hope its a useful tool for making decisions about which characters to flesh out and how much.

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  8. This is a wonderfully informative post. I like having character write ups for my mc, my secondary characters, and a few of the tertiary characters. I have to admit one of my issues in my current WIP is that I don't feel like I have enough characterization of my MC, but my secondary characters are interesting . . . I need to beef up my MC.

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    1. Reading in psychology can help a lot with doing deeper characterization. that's what I'd recommend!

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  9. BTW - have you ever thought of publishing a book on writing? It seems like you have a lot of good information that would fit into a book like that.

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    1. Yes, as a matter of fact, it's in the works. But I'm also juggling a day job, so I can't predict when it will be completed.

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  10. I definitely sketch primary characters into great detail. The secondary characters are fleshed out as I write them -- they are always the ones I end up liking more. It's most fun to discover characters as you go. Great article!

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    1. Sound like in revision, the challenge is to go even deeper with the primary players. But there's nothing wrong with waiting until a draft is done to make a hierarchy. Let the characters play, then decide which ones move the story most, then focus on them.

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  11. Good post! I do detailed MC workups before I write, but sometimes minor characters just show up and surprise me.

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    1. I tend to make these decisions between first and second drafts, which can work fine for the "pantser" style. Sometimes even which characters are primary versus secondary isn't clear until the draft is done.

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  12. These are great points. I just finished a book that had about 20 characters... almost all of which had equal importance (or lack of). So frustrating because you don't know who to follow, who is important, who to cheer for. And they got very confusing.

    I think its important that the author knows a lot about every character, but not so much the reader. If the author knows them, that comes through on the page no matter how much time and space they are given.

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    1. I love creating characters so much, I know I can get carried away going too deep with too many. But sometimes it's not clear until a rough draft is done which people are most important. Sounds like the author you read didn't take a step back and really shape their raw material well in revision. A lesson to us all of why that's a step to not skip!

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  13. Great post, a nice "middle way" approach to developing characters!

    Awhile back I wrote a short story, and another student in my creative writing class thought one of my characters was flat because he was an extra, and she didn't know much about him. I realize now that extras are often necessary and not every character has to have an elaborate back story. I agree that the primary characters should be thought out more for it to be a believable story. :)

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    1. LOL, I've had some TERRIBLE, useless crits in creative writing classes. I think in some ways studying theatre is better preparation. There you learn the importance of not upstaging the main characters! All the players have to be moving the story forward, not diffusing the motion with tangetial stories. Indeed some tertiary characters are there for texture, to evoke emotion. You don't need to know why the chick on the elevator wears cloying perfume, right?

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  14. Wonderful tips,Laurel. In the comments you mention reading psychology books. Any of them in particular?

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    1. Tricia, a good starting book is Think Like a Shrink by Emanuel Rosen. He covers many of the major topics that drive human emotion and conflict.

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