Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Bringing Your Characters to Life

By Joyce Scarbrough, @JoyceScarbrough

Part of the How They Do It Series

Characters bring a novel to life, so it's only fair we do the same for them when we write those novels. To help us with that, Joyce Scarbrough visits the lecture hall today to talk about characterization.

The valedictorian of her high school graduating class, Joyce is a Southern woman weary of seeing herself and her peers portrayed in books and movies as either post-antebellum debutantes or barefoot hillbillies รก la Daisy Duke, so all her heroines are smart, unpretentious women who refuse to be anyone but themselves. Joyce writes both adult and YA fiction and has five published novels as well as several short stories available as Kindle downloads. She’s lived all her life in beautiful LA (lower Alabama), she’s the mother of three gifted children and a blind Pomeranian named Tilly, and she’s been married for 33 years to the love of her life—a superhero who disguises himself during the day as a high school math teacher and coach.

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Take it away Joyce...

I didn't originally intend to write this post about characterization, but a comment I got in an Amazon review for my novel Shades of Blue made me change my mind.
“Ms. Scarbrough is a master at developing characters that are part of a bad situation and abuse. She has a gift for it, and if you read her work, you wonder if either she or someone close to her has been through some of these things, because she does such an excellent job with the characters in these situations.”

The thing is, I have absolutely no first-hand experience with any kind of abuse. Those of my characters who are abused came about from my lifetime of reading and are an amalgamation/tribute to the abused characters I've loved over the years in books like One Child by Torey Hayden, One on One by Tabitha King, and She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb. Since this isn’t the first time someone has wondered if my abused characters are based on real experience, I decided I needed to write about how I create them.

I don't really know how I do characterization, other than that my characters are real, living, breathing people to me. Yes, I know you’ve probably heard other writers say that same thing and then read their books only to find that their characters are two-dimensional archetypes with no real depth. That's why I decided to make a pointed effort in this post to explain how I craft characters who are people you may either love or despise—usually a little of both—but you'll definitely feel something for them, and you'll most likely remember them after you've finished reading the books.

There are two kinds of characterization in literature. Here's an example of the first one—“direct characterization”—in which the reader is given a complete physical description of the character. This is somewhat necessary in children's books because kids like to know exactly what characters look like. However, you'll see that J.K. Rowling skillfully manages to give us a lot of insight into Harry's personality and the things that made him who he is.
Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning.

We know from this that Harry lives with cruelty and neglect. He thinks he's nothing special at all, yet he likes the one thing about him that makes him oh-so-different. As we read on from here and see that Harry also manages to keep a sense of humor and positive outlook in the face of all the oppression he lives with, it makes us like him and root for him all the more.

Now here's one of the best examples of characterization I've ever seen. It came from author Maya Reynolds in a discussion we were having on a writing forum about characters. It's actually about a movie character, but it most certainly applies to writing as well.
“In the thriller, Sea of Love, Al Pacino is a cop. Scene One finds him in the middle of a sting operation. Parole violators have been lured by the promise of meeting the N.Y. Yankees, but when they arrive it's Al and his cop buddies waiting to bust them. But on his way out, Al does something nice. He spots another lawbreaker who's brought his son, coming late to the sting. Seeing the dad with his kid, Al flashes his badge at the man who nods in understanding and exits quick. Al lets this guy off the hook because he has his young son with him. And just so you know Al hasn't gone totally soft, he also gets to say a cool line to the crook: ‘Catch you later . . .’ Well, I don't know about you, but I like Al. I'll go anywhere he takes me now, and you know what else? I'll be rooting to see him win. All based on a two second interaction between Al and a dad with his baseball-fan kid.”

This is called “indirect characterization.” You don't TELL the reader (or viewer) that Al is a savvy, seasoned cop who's tough on criminals but has a good heart. You SHOW them by letting them see what he does in this situation.

Likewise, you might have a teenage character that's basically an arrogant jock who thinks he's God's gift to cheerleaders, but when he sees somebody picking on a kid in special ed, he steps in and stops it because he's got a little brother with autism. Or maybe you have a female protagonist whose self-worth is completely dependent on her intelligence because her mother always made her feel ugly. Those little personality quirks and flaws make for three-dimensional characters who seem like real people and not eye roll-inducing caricatures or, even worse, cardboard cutouts that nobody cares about and are totally forgettable.

Here's how I characterize Jaycee, the main character in my novel Different Roads. This scene takes place the morning after her father beats her in a drunken rage.
She answered the knock on her door a minute later. “What do you want?”

“I bought some of them cookies you like. Them twinkles or whatever you call 'em.”

Jaycee stared at herself in the cracked mirror on the wall and shook her head. What a touching gesture. Beat your kid with a belt because you've been lusting after her, then buy her Twinkies to apologize. Who wouldn't love a father like that?

“Thanks, Jake,” she said with a sigh. “I'll put some coffee on in a minute.”

This pretty much sums up Jaycee's character. She lives her entire life trying to make something of herself to win her father's love, while simultaneously trying to convince herself that she doesn't care anything about him.

Ultimately, characterization is what determines whether or not you remember what happened in a book or who was in it. Everyone remembers Atticus and Scout Finch, but do you remember the characters' names in Brave New World or The DaVinci Code? Some people prefer plot-driven novels like those, but I'll take a visit with the March Sisters and Scarlett O'Hara any day.

About Different Roads

When Jaycee Stevens is six years old, her mother dies and leaves her with an abusive drunk of a father. She grows up a foul-mouthed hellion who lives in fear of anyone finding out that she's really a love-starved little girl terrified of the dark. Her intrepid spirit carries her to college on an athletic scholarship, but she's tripped up there by a poor little rich boy named Bud Stanton who hides in a bottle like Jaycee's old man. Bud is everything she despises, and she wants him more than she's ever wanted anything. When she finally stops fighting her attraction to him, they fall hard for each other, and God help anyone who gets caught in the crossfire. Their rollercoaster life is gritty, touching, and funny, and just when they think they've made it safely to the end of their wild ride, Jaycee's childhood comes back to derail her when she has to go home and face her biggest fear: What happened to her in the dark?

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  1. I'm afraid I love my plot-driven novels, but that don't make bringing the character to life any less important. I love the way you demonstrate indirectly putting life in the character and agree with you completely. Nice post.

  2. I teach workshops on characterization which include every one of the tips you include here! If the characters aren't real to you as the writer, you can't expect them to be real to those reading your work. Excellent article!

  3. Yes to strong characters that stay in your mind--long after the book is done. Thanks for the reminder.