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August 11, 2016

Characterization Handout

Again, here's a handout I use in my fiction/prose narrative classes that I thought might be useful to others.

Feel free to use these guidelines in your workshops, post links back here, and refer people to this post. All I ask is that you attach my name to any print outs, quotes, or references, and give proper credit!

Characterization (“Xtr” = “Character”)

STEP ONE: FIND YOUR XTR’S SPINE

Essential building blocks: these are the things you should know about your character.

  1. Physical appearance as it affects personality and how other Xtrs respond to this Xtr.
  2. Cultural background, especially if this xtr lives in a world with more than one culture.
  3. Family background as it affects personality, limitations, etc.
  4. Upbringing and education as it affects personality, ability, how other Xtrs respond (“education” means a great deal more than school. It can mean training and areas of knowledge and expertise, etc.)
  5. What does this character do? This means job, vocation, calling, passion, as well as the role the xtr fills in his/her community.
  6. What are his/her strengths and how are they shown?
  7. Why does he/she have these particular strengths?
  8. What are his/her flaws and how are they manifested?
  9. Why does he/she have these particular flaws?
  10. What drives him/her? What does he/she want from life?
  11. What does this xtr fear? What are his/her “issues”?

A Xtr’s SPINE is his/her central, operating elements of personality. “Operating” means that they’re important to the story, they work in the story. For example, Neo (from The Matrix) may have had a shoe fetish, but it doesn’t operate in the story, so it’s not part of his spine. When you’re through figuring these things (above) out, you (and your reader) should have no trouble describing your character's SPINE in three or four items. 

e.g.:

  • Neo is a computer genius, he has intuition about the nature of reality, he is obsessive about discovering the truth, he is physically and morally courageous
  • Frodo (from Lord of the Rings) is a comfortable homebody, he loves the Shire with a passion, his only talents are courage and a strong moral compass

STEP TWO: FIND YOUR XTR’S MOTIVE FORCE

  1. A Character is a creature or object that reflects and acts. A Protagonist is a Character whose action drives the action of the whole story (there will be other characters in your story who act, but their action doesn’t drive the story. E.g.: The Oracle in The Matrix tells people important things but it’s Neo who makes the story happen.
  2. In step one you thought about what drove your Xtr, what s/he wanted from life. Which one or combination of these desires is strong enough for a Xtr. to act upon?
  3. Xtrs do not exist in a vacuum, they live in a world. Some of their desires will be fulfilled by their world, and some blocked. It is the blocked desire that, to be fulfilled, requires action. Which of your Xtr’s desires interacts with his/her world in such a way that requires action? This will be his/her MOTIVE FORCE.

MOTIVE FORCE = desire that requires action

e.g.:

  • Neo wants to learn the truth about reality but the matrix keeps reality away. This drives him to seek out Morpheus, take the blue pill and exit the world of the matrix.
  • Frodo wants a quiet life in the Shire. This is threatened by the black riders searching for the ring. His desire to preserve the Shire drives him to set out to destroy the ring.

STEP THREE: REVEAL YOUR XTR IN THE TEXT

You can’t just sit down and tell everything about your xtr and have that operate. Your reader has to know your xtr, but s/he also has to feel and see and intuit your xtr to become really engaged. You can’t give away your xtr, you must reveal your xtr. (i.e. you can’t make your reader passive, you have to entice them to dig a little.) There are several methods of revealing character. Keep an eye out for these as you read. Not all writers use all of these in every story, and often, they are manipulated in interesting ways.

Methods of revealing Xtr:

  1. Exposition: telling about your character

    Snorfle was a strong smark from the forests of Lagoo. His parents had died when he was small and he had raised himself. He was much respected. More than anything, he wanted to avenge his parents’ death.

  2. Description: describing your character physically or otherwise

    Snorfle had three small eyes in the back of his head and a lot of hair around his neck. The females especially loved his slime-green claws and the way they all curved so gracefully to the right. They also loved his beautiful manners over a fresh carcass and the intense way he pounded its skull to jelly.

  3. Action: what your character does in a large and small sense

    Upon learning the name of his parents’ murderer, Snorfle fell into a green funk for three weeks and refused all food – even girl-eyeballs, his favorite. He sat in a corner of his cave and didn’t move, except for whapping his tail against the floor. In the end, he decided to go on a quest to find the murderer and place sharp sticks in every available murderer orifice.

  4. Gestures and mannerisms: the very small actions that distinguish a character

    Snorfle had a habit of picking his snout, putting the results on his tail, and flicking them across the lake into the trees. Or: Snorfle read the notice, skritching his underscales as he read.

  5. Dialogue: a way of establishing voice as well as the character’s modes of interaction with others.

    “Too Small!” Snorfle shouted. “Snorfle don’t eat small humans!”

    “Calm down,” Weedy said. “We can still eat it.”

    “No! I am Snorfle! No small humans! If Snorfle eats small humans then Snorfle won’t have big humans to eat!”

    “I know,” Weedy said, sighing and releasing the human. “You’re a conservationist. You’ve told me. Many times.”

  6. Thoughts: a direct line into the character’s brain

    Snorfle tried to look like he was listening to Weedy, but he only wanted to squeeze her scaly yoohoos. They were so … juicy. She was female, why should he not squeeze them? Oh, yes, because she would hurt him. Better not. Better look like he was listening.

  7. Narrative voice: Only when the story is told by the character – a first person narrator.

    I am Snorfle. Hear my tale! I come from the forest. You do not. Listen to me or die!

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