Thursday, September 24, 2009

Taking Characterization to the Next Level

Well, I finished Manuscript Makeover and got a lot out of the last half of the characterization section.  Here are a few highlights:
  • On p. 266, Ms. Lyon offers a list of criteria against which to assess each of my characters.  I'm only going to list a smattering of the elements she mentions, but I definitely plan to work through all of them with each of my principle characters before tackling my re-write.
  1. Physical Appearance:  Aside from age, weight, eye color, etc., she suggests considering such characteristics as the shape and fullness of a character's lips, his/her habitual stances and gestures, and voice quality (timber and pitch).
  2. Emotional/Intellectual Disposition:  This list includes "most dominant emotion", "operating mode" (logical v. intuitive thinker), and "orientation to life" (cynical, optimistic, etc.), among other things.
  • Ms. Lyon also points out that each viewpoint character's narration must have a distinctive "voice."  I have to be particularly mindful of this because I am writing in 3rd person limited, which means that I follow my characters' thoughts closely, however I am not writing as if I were them (i.e., 1st person).  Likewise, scene/character descriptions should not be generic, but rather, slanted toward the viewpoint character's personality and the thrust of the story.  What this means is, don't just start writing about trees in the forest if those background details bear absolutely no relevance to what's going on in your character's world.  [That said, Ms. Lyon does suggest the more-is-more approach to scene-setting in order to immerse the reader in the novel's universe; she says overwritten description can always be pared down in the final draft.]
  • I really liked what Ms. Lyon had to say about dialogue, so here's a direct quote:  Dialogue "needs to sound like natural speech, [but it] should not replicate everyday speech ... it must meet two primary functions: (1) to characterize the speaker, and (2) to move the story forward." p. 278.  She also warned against describing dialogue (those awful adverbs!) and over-use of attributions (e.g., "he said/she asked"), especially "clever" ones (e.g., "she giggled/he extolled.").  Here's an example that incorporates both offenses:  "If that's the way it must be, so be it," Sue grumbled sulkily.  I was already well aware that if you can tell who's speaking without an attribution, don't use one.  But when I do use them, I must admit (to my great shame) that I often have my characters "harrumph" and "guffaw"ing their words.  Never again!  I'm also a lover of adverbs (I know, I know, I might as well have NOVICE WRITER stamped on my forehead).  Ms. Lyon suggests using action where the dialogue leaves doubt as to the character's emotions.  So in my example, I might try something like this:  "If that's the way it must be, so be it."  Sue slumped down in the armchair and scowled out the window. In trying this little exercise, I'm already getting a sense of how a writer can communicate much more interesting information by ditching the attributions in favor of description.
  • And of course, Ms. Lyon addressed my Achilles tendon - excessive exposition.  "So often in early drafts of a novel, exposition takes the form of what editors sometimes call 'an information dump.'"  Manuscript Makeover, p. 294.  She suggests weaving between showing and telling to make the passage meaningful and to push the narrative along.  I wish Ms. Lyon had spent a bit more time discussing this, but I have a feeling that, with all the other tips and techniques I've gleaned from her book, my inclination to babble tangentially about a character's past will subside during this next re-write.
To round off my discussion on characterization, I'm inserting a mock back jacket "flap copy" I came up with about halfway through my first draft.  This will give you a brief overview of my six viewpoint characters as they are currently written.  I also wanted to share a terrific idea I had the other day re how to go about "storyboarding" my character arcs.  My novel is written in alternating viewpoint chapters throughout (e.g., Ch. 1 - Cora's POV; Ch. 2- Lila's POV; Ch. 3 - Rosemarie's POV, etc.)  So to be able to track any specific character's narrative, I decided the best way to re-read my book would be to compile all viewpoint chapters by character.  I've created 6 documents, one for all the sequentially-ordered Cora chapters, one for all the Lila chapters, etc.  It's going to be a whole new experience reading my novel this way, and will surely expose character weaknesses I had missed the first time around.

Vanderkill, New York is a small town about 120 miles north of Manhattan, a few miles inland from the Hudson River.  One day in late 1926, three young men move into their recently-deceased grandmother’s mansion.  From thenceforth, six lives will be permanently intertwined in a quest for truth, loyalty and, if such a thing exists, happiness.

Lila Payton, seduced by the promise of a glamorous city life, finds herself repeating the dangerous patterns of her ill-fated, wild-living parents.

Marcus Torrington has lived too long in the shadow of his flashy, debonair cousins to not be bitter.  Losing the woman he loves to one of them is almost too much to bear.

Rosemarie Dauber never thought she would have to break out of her role as the good little minister’s daughter.  But life, and love, have other plans for her.

Ophelia James believed she had left her devil behind when she escaped the Jim Crow South.  She never dreamed that he could find her up here.

Cora Morse is a prisoner of her own failing body, but like any prisoner, she has a plan for escape.  It is, however, not without casualties.

Arthur Morse does not ask a lot out of life, tacitly accepting the secrets that are kept from him.  And carefully guarding a secret of his own.

FIGURING IT OUT AS I GO:  Characters are the heart and soul of most fiction, so you cannot do enough to improve upon them in your second draft.  Again, learn your "novice writer" tendencies.  Come up with techniques to catch those tendencies as you write and re-write so that you can substitute them with better literary choices.

Here ends my overview on characterization ... now onto the research phase ...


  1. First, I always had a problem with physical description of characters, although it might be from reading physical descriptions that were written poorly. I've ascribed to the William Gass (at least I attribute it to Gass), but it could also be that I'm just too lazy to write a good description.

    Second, much of writing becomes dialogue heavy, which is unfortunate, because I do not think that I write good dialogue. I do avoid adverbs and employ the technique you describe in this post. I think it does result in better writing. However, in my case I am a little afraid that it reads like a rerun of the West Wing with people talking as they roam through the halls.

    For some reason I am feeling a sense of deja vu with this comment ...

  2. It's good that you're aware of your weaknesses and know what to work on ... I seem to keep discovering new weaknesses of my own each day! (But I'm not going to give up until I overcome them ALL ... this may take awhile ...) ;-]-