Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Slight Rant on Characterization, or Here's Something to Think About

Because I live out here in the Midwest, I'm becoming good friends with Mr. Interlibrary Loan. Our library system has sadly encountered a series of budget cuts, so they do not have a lot of the books I want to read, especially ones that are up for various awards. Since we have "budget cuts" of our own, I usually try to read a book from the library first, then buy it later if I love it--kinda like regular people do with movies. (I'm not a big movie buyer, if you couldn't tell.) I had a "duh" moment a couple of weeks ago when I remembered I could get anything through the library!

So, I was excited to get an interlibrary loan last week, and read it while on my sickbed.

The plot was interesting, but after the final pages I closed the book and felt nothing. This bothered me. There was a decent amount of action, tension and emotional happenings that should have had a big impact, but the book fell flat. After a while I realized what the main problem was.

To a point, I can overlook things like predictability and less-than-stellar plot if the characters are good. I like books with characters I can sink my teeth into. Not people I want to bite (hee, hee), but something that makes them stick out, makes them feel real. Action, romance or sympathy doesn't do anything for me if I don't know what makes the character tick, and not feeling enough for the character makes me feel callous, which is something else that bugs me. Boiled down, my feelings amount to this: Oh, you're in danger? Well I don't care because I don't know what kind of ice cream you like, favorite band or type of clothing you're into, or what you typically do on a Saturday night, or if you like dogs or scrapbooking.

Superficial? If this were a real person, yes. But a fictional person needs this type of familiarity, something to make them feel more real and grounded in my mind. I can read about their emotions and how various things affected them, physical sensations and everything, but if the character's not real to me I'm not going to care why he/she is affected that way. I want to see how they act relating to their everyday habits and experiences, and how changing those things affect them.

If a woman likes to run on the sidewalk in her neighborhood every morning but she's been forced to move to a city with no sidewalks, it's going to affect her. If a man's wife always had dinner ready when he came home from work, how will coming home the first time after she's left him for another man affect him? I don't remember which book it was now since I read it as a teen, but one of the most powerful scenes I ever read was one of a family where their mother had died of cancer. She used to like to bake pies and freeze them. There was a scene where the family took out the last pie she had made and shared it. The images were so reverent and emotional that it chokes me up just to think about it now. It's these types of details that will stick with readers.

Changes in routine are also a great way to show character growth. A story about a girl trying to lose weight might have her show her internal resolve by grabbing a bag of baby carrots instead of her daily barbecue potato chips (and no, I'm not admitting to any habits here). No matter how much emotion we try to show in the way characters speak or feel, they're going to fall flat if the reader knows nothing about what makes our characters tick.

I'm going to take my own advice and see what I can do to make my characters more realistic.


Karen said...

Good point! Maybe that's why I like good biographies.

Steve Westover said...

Ha. Our posts fit together pretty well today. Good job. I like the example of sharing the final pie. Very touching.

Kimberly said...

Brilliantly summed up Rebecca! This is something I'm struggling with in my third draft - weaving in personal details and quirks that I didn't think important enough to bother with in the first two.


Angie said...

Yes! Realistic characters are essential. If I can't connect with the characters in a story, forget it!

Cantwell Chaos said...

Absolutely...I couldn't agree more. Well put! I just started, yet another, draft of my novel. I have changed it a bit. I realized it was lacking so much, and I'm attempting to add what it is lacking. I will keep your advice in mind as I write about my main character's experiences. Thanks!!!

Heidi said...

You are so clever to have figured this out. It really doesn't take much--just a few characteristics or personality traits that bear on the plot line is all it really takes. :)