The How-to Of Creative Writing - Characterisation

Posted at 06:19am on 31st August 2008

DO YOU ANALYSE WHAT YOU READ AND WATCH?

Last week we looked at the way in which Theme determines the subject or focal point of a story. Have you found, since then, that you’re beginning to be a little more analytical about what you read and watch?

Before I started writing professionally, I never considered the books I read or the films I saw in terms of Theme. We all tend to share our enthusiasm about the latest ‘must-read’ or ‘must-watch’ in language which is to do with Plot. We tell the story: ‘He did this; she said that; this was the consequence.’ Understanding the pivotal importance of Theme transformed my appreciation of literature and drama. So I hope you’re beginning to find yourselves thinking of what you read and watch in a different way? Were you, for instance, able to identify the purpose behind your favourite novels and films?

CHARACTERISATION IS CENTRAL

Today I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned, over the years, about Characterisation. It’s a big subject, so it’s going to take more than this one Post to do it justice. Although there may be those who disagree, I want to begin by saying:

Characterisation is just as relevant for those wanting to write an autobiographical story, an inspirational story, or a testimony, as it is for those of you who are aspiring novelists.

CHARACTER BASED

It should be obvious to all of us that a novel is a story about people. Equally obvious is the fact that an autobiography or testimony is also about people. But, I hear you say, if I’m writing my own story, why do I need to know about Characterisation? Well, novelists talk about Plot being Character-led. In just the same way, your true-life story has come about largely because of YOUR Character and the way in which YOU have responded to the people and circumstances you come across.

It’s crucial to understand this. A different Character to you might respond quite differently to exactly the same stimuli. That Character’s response to the first situation which set you off in a certain direction might be so utterly different that they never encounter the next stage of your journey. So – from exactly the same beginning – a different Character may travel a completely different route, and reach an entirely different destination!

CHARACTER CREATES STORY

In the same way, one fictitious Character’s reaction will be different to another’s. Consequently, given the same set of circumstances, the story of Character A will be unlike the story of Character B. Although it is perfectly possible to create a story based on the protagonist acting out of character, your choice of Character is still vital to the integrity of your narrative. And if ‘being in Character’ means that they are weak and spineless, so that they drift like flotsam and jetsam, allowing themselves to ebb and flow with the tide – even that lack of drive in their lives is a driving force in the plot of the story.

We can best sum this up as follows:

THE CHARACTERS IN A STORY ARE NOT MERELY TRAVELLERS
BUT ARE THE DRIVERS
THEME IS THE PURPOSE OF THE JOURNEY
PLOT IS THE JOURNEY ITSELF
STORY IS THE VEHICLE

Let’s look at this in practice.

  • It’s worth noting at this point, that all stories – be they novel, autobiography, or testimony – should begin with the moment at which conflict enters the Main Character’s life. (More of this next week).
  • This conflict is what – implicitly or explicitly – indicates the THEME.
  • Thus the THEME of my novel, A Painful Post Mortem, could be stated as ‘finding peace’.
  • The conflict which sets off the Theme is the death of a young woman.
  • To begin with, it appears that Claire, the main CHARACTER of the story, has been robbed of her peace solely by the death of her daughter. Gradually, however, it dawns on her that her equilibrium has been upset by a statement in the Post Mortem which writes the girl off as a ‘known drug-addict’.
  • The PLOT – which she instigates because she is the driving force – is a journey (a quest) to clear her daughter’s name.
  • Her CHARACTER is what determines this response. A different Character might simply have lapsed into grief and depression.
  • Her STORY is what takes her from that moment of losing her peace to the point where she achieves her purpose.
  • The PLOT – ever event and obstacle that she meets on the way - is dealt with IN CHARACTER. In other words, her response to all the issues raised throughout her quest, is dictated by her personality.
  • Another CHARACTER in the book is Mark, the dead girl’s father. His need to find peace is prompted by guilt (as is the case for all of the characters to a greater or lesser extent). His Character’s response is to drown his guilt with drink. Because of his past, he is unable to process his conflict in any other way.
  • Rosie’s need to find peace is prompted by a recognition that because of her past as sister of the dead girl, she has become a ‘people pleaser’ and has under-achieved. Her response to this new understanding – in Character – is to change the priorities in her life.
  • ALL THREE INDIVIDUALS FULFIL THE THEME OF THE BOOK ACCORDING TO THEIR OWN PARTICULAR CHARACTER, OR TEMPERAMENT. THUS THE STORYLINE OF EACH IS PURSUED FROM A DIFFERENT ANGLE AND HAS A DIFFERENT CONCLUSION.

CREATING CREDIBLE CHARACTERS

The fact is that whether the Characters in your book are drawn from your imagination or from real life (for autobiographies only) you need to know them inside out. And how well, I wonder, do you know yourself – let alone anyone else? There’s a verse in the Bible which states that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things’. If we’re to produce credible Characters either from our imagination or as players in an autobiography, we need to develop an understanding of human nature. So, as a spin-off from this series, I’m going to help you to know your Characters better, I hope, than ever before!

THREE DIMENSIONAL

Cardboard Characters are two-dimensional. The tendency, for a new writer, is to think of the Characters of their book as being either good or bad. But the fact is that almost all of us are deeper than that. Even the Hannibal Lecters of this world may have a weak spot. (If anyone can identify what it was, please let us know!) Hitler, for all his barbaric and murderous acts, loved Eva Braun, at least enough to put her at the top of the personal bequests in his will, which would have given her a generous income for the rest of her life – had she had one!

Conversely, we all know how we can kid ourselves into believing what we want to believe about ourselves. I’m a nice person but I’m in a rush, I tell myself as I pinch the last parking spot and leave an elderly person without. I’m doing this in love, I think, as I break damaging news to someone who might have been better left in ignorance. I deserve this break, I mutter, as I embroider the truth in order to project a better image of myself.

If that’s how we rationalise life to ourselves, then that’s how the Characters in our books should conduct their lives. The Characters we write about need:

  • Credibility – be true to life
  • Creativity – in the way they respond to conflict
  • Complexity – depth which makes them three dimensional

HOMEWORK

Think of a book or film you know well. Identify the Theme and the manner in which it was fulfilled i.e. the Plot. What were the features of the Main Character’s personality, and how did they convey the Theme? Substitute another Character you know of from a book or film. How different would the storyline have been under the influence of that Character’s temperament?

FREE ONLINE CREATIVE WRITING CLASSES

If you feel you’ve benefited from this free tutorial, why not do one or more of the following:

  1. Subscribe (free) to receive further tutorials by RSS (click the little orange icon at the top of the screen to the right of my website address) or by e-mail
  2. Tell a friend and ask them to subscribe (free)
  3. Make a donation by purchasing a copy of A Painful Post Mortem. (If purchased from this site, all profits - approximately 35% of the book price - will be given to charity to support projects ‘drug-proofing’ UK teenagers, and for 3rd World babies born HIV+
  4. Tell a friend and ask them to support these worthwhile causes by buying a copy of the book

NEXT WEEK

We’ll be looking at Conflict – putting together the Plot idea, Theme and Characters. At the end of this Course, I shall be compiling some Writing Workshops: exercises on all the topics covered.

Related topics: Introduction ; Plot ;Theme

© Mel Menzies, August 2008

The author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No. 4 Bestseller,
Mel is also an experienced Speaker
and has addressed live audiences of between 20 and 700+
in addition to participating in TV and Radio chat shows.

Her latest novel ‘A Painful Post Mortem’ may be purchased online on my books’ page, at: Booklocker ; or at Amazon

ALL Profits - approximately 35% of book sales - are for charity.
To book her as a Speaker, contact her at: author@melmenzies.co.uk

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