Today’s post is written by Joe Bunting. Thanks, Joe!
I think most people have characterization backwards.
I realize that is quite a statement from a unpublished writer. However, it’s mostly unpublished authors like me dithering away their time reading (and sometimes writing) blog posts about the ten secrets of effective characterization on the internet. I just want to save people like me a lot of time.
We aspirants eat this characterization stuff up, and it’s pretty obvious why.
1. Because characterization is easy.
It’s not hard to sit down at your computer and think about Billy’s brown curls and how Suzy always sighs and bites her nails when she thinks about him.
2. Because we like creating people.
Good news, guys and gals. Did you hear the Sims is on Facebook? That’s right. Thirty-million people signed up for it in its first month (Can you imagine if that many people read your book in a month?).
The tag line of the game: “Build a home. Build a relationship. Build a life.” You get to dress little Suzy in her pre-faded jeans and yellow strapless top and send her to flirt with all the boys. It’s quite entertaining.
The Sims have tapped a nerve, and it’s the same nerve all those blog posts and writing books about characterization tap. Humans just like creating other humans. It’s why people have kids. We want to see what they look like, imagine what they’ll do, watch them realize their potential.
3. Because we want to fall in love.
More than anything, what draws us to characterization is the idea that we could find our soul mate, our best friend, or at least a great neighbor, and all we have to do is make them up.
Isn’t that great? All you have to do to escape your loneliness is sit down and create an interesting person in your head. Many people become writers for this very reason. It’s one reason I started writing.
Before You Characterize
However, characterization won’t write your book.
Before you fall in love with your character through the characterization process, I want you to do something.
I want you to ruin your characters’ lives.
I think you should create characters you (and your readers) would want to spend the rest of your life with.
First, though, your book needs conflict.
You have to light Billy’s metaphorical curls on fire. You need to beat Suzy over the head with the candlestick in the drawing room.
Otherwise, you will just have a drawer full of characters no one else wants to get to know.
Instead of brainstorming character traits, brainstorm disasters. Come up with the worst breakup imaginable. Do research on the most uncomfortable diseases. If you’re really twisted, think about how many paper-cuts it would take to cause a mental breakdown, and then use little Bobby as your test dummy.
Save the characterization for later because if you have to be mean, why not do it to a stranger?
Why not set fire to Billy’s curls before you’re too emotionally attached? Save yourself the heartache and wait to take Suzy on shopping dates until after you attempt to murder her.
Conflict first. Characterization later.
Editor’s Note: Do you agree with the notion that conflict should come before characterization? Why or why not? Do you think ‘characterization is easy,’ or just simplistic characterization? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Joe Bunting ruins his characters’ lives all the time over at The Write Practice, where he writes and teaches others to write. He can also be found on Twitter.
Join the discussion
florence fois says
Hello Joe 🙂 First, my compliments on a job well done. Second … NOT. Characters are for me the yolk of the egg. The central and most crucial part of “the word.” We cannot create without them. They are not merely eye color, hair and personality disorders, they are the people who carry the muse, who sing the songs, who speak the words and … CREATE the conflict. Setting is the second most important “character” … and the story or conflict? That’s what I do to them. I can try to be nice to my characters and then they go off and do something silly or terrible and cause all kinds of problems or conficts for me and before I can reign them in, they get other people in trouble or fall in love.
This was the topic of a slap-down on Writers In The Storm blog … what comes first … the character or the plot? We both know where you stand … you go for the plot first. It could be the chicken or the egg thing … but for me there is no story unless I have that first person or persons in my head already. Sometimes I don’t know what they look like, but I do know without them banging around in my brain, I won’t find the plot-point (conflict) or story.
Joe Bunting says
You’ve got a great argument, and in the end, of course, you have to write the way you write, not how someone tells you to do it. I think you’re lucky you have such great characters who are always getting into trouble. I think the problem with a lot of writers is they become so attached to their characters they want to protect them, or else their characters are so nice that, unlike yours, they never get into any trouble.
So what would YOU suggest to them?
florence fois says
Hello again, Joe 🙂 My suggestion to them is to take a risk and let your characters be who they are, even when you don’t like them. Thanks so much for your response.
Joe Bunting says
Hmm… you put that beautifully. “Let them be who they are, even when you don’t like them.” I’ll have to think more about that.
I’m open since I still haven’t decided which comes first, character or plot. They are heavily intertwined. But I don’t agree that characterization is easy. Not good characterization, anyway. It takes work to make characters more than cliched cut-outs. Good writers go past the “what” to the “why”, and that’s where it gets dicey.
Still, I agree that you can have the greatest characters, wonderfully appealing despite their flaws, and have no story without conflict. Conflict makes the story.
Joe Bunting says
Right Patricia. “Good” characterization is the key word there. And how can you reveal character but through conflict? It’s like that truism, If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. Strong characters are made strong through metaphorical “murder attempts.”
Brittany Roshelle says
That’s a great point. Writers have to be downright cruel to their characters. We’re the ones who throw their lives into chaos and then sit back and let the reader feel for them.
Thanks for the tips!
The Write Stuff
Joe Bunting says
You’re very welcome Brittany. Thanks for commenting.
Personally, I am very, very cruel to my characters. But for me, it worked better to get to know them first. I had to know what made them tick, what made them scared. I have one character who when she was first introduced in the story I didn’t know anything about her. It wasn’t until I learned who she was and that she wasn’t afraid of anything that I was able to figure out how to best mess with her life. If I hadn’t taken the time to do that, the scenes where she’s tortured later in the book wouldn’t have worked.
Like I said, everyone’s different, and for some people it definitely works better to do conflict first. Good luck with everything!
Rose Byrd says
I tend find my inspiration for a writing project from a specific type of conflict (and how to solve it) just popping into my head while I am walking, meditating, driving, etc. But immediately, certain characters from my past and present experiences starting bubbling to the surface. Only then do I start building the fictional characters to be both believable and unique, within the context of the basic conflict. The characters traits I develop will determine the path and scenery of the conflict resolution.
Laura Matson Hahn says
I suspect I’m an old fogy on this webchat but consider this — way back when I was in college and studying Oral Interpretation of Literature (ah-what?!) we learned (and I continue to teach) the Dramatic Analysis – the means for analyzing literature with five questions: WHO is the main character?, WHAT are they doing? WHERE are they doing it ? WHEN is it happening? HOW is it happening? and WHY. I follow the same sequence when I write as well. That’s not necessarily how it comes out on the page, but certainly in my head. Conflict really doesn’t pull me into a story. I don’t judge a book by it’s first pages of conflict, but on the feel of the writing and characters….because if I don’t like them, I don’t give a fig for whatever they are dealing with.
Ouch… This article hurt A LOT! I also think it’s the kick in the pants I needed.
I’ve been writing and researching character profiles for a few months now and agree that it’s the easy part; creating characters is great fun. Ruining them is even more fun.
That said, you can find out a lot about your story by evaluating your characters. I have a series of questions that I run through when I create my players and these inevitably help to create story. But to create the characters without having any ofrm of story plan would probably be like, as you say, playing SIMs. Working on plot and characters in tandem is, I believe, the perfect system.
However, you can plan and plan forever so, THANKS, I’m starting on the actual writing this wekend.
That’s great! I know people who do that – character sheets that are two or three pages long for even incidental characters. I’m more conflict driven. I like getting right into the story. A character comes alive when they they face their fears, etc. They develop a personality that a sheet of paper stating their ‘attitude about …’ really doesn’t help me realize for them.
Besides, doesn’t all that pre-sketched information change at the first sign of their lives being tossed into danger?
I also have trouble sitting down and filling out those sheets. I feel like I’m taking a long boring personality test or something 😛 I’d rather start writing – with an idea of who, what, why, but not a complete ‘person’ standing there in front of me. Or, rather on the page (s) in front of me. 🙂
Ann Elise says
For my part, I generally come up with ideas for characters before I come up with the main conflict in a story. The characters do evolve as the conflict does until the characters are well-rounded, but I can’t recall a time when I thought of a conflict first before coming up with characters to act it out. Some of the time, the conflict stems directly from putting characters with clashing personalities in the same space.
I find character profiles tedious, but sometimes I like to fill out basic ones to give me an idea of who I’m dealing with in a story, which dictates what exactly they’re going to do about the conflict once there is one.
This is an interesting discussion. I imagine it is different for each writer. I think you can start from conflict, and work back to find out what your character is like in order to have ended up in his or her problem, or you can create unique characters and then build a conflict to challenge them. What I think any writer can take away from this is that perfect characters with no flaws who never struggle are not interesting.
Thanks Joe, I loved your “disclaimer” at the beginning of the article. I really liked your advice. Falling in love with our characters can keep us from putting them in enough harms way to make for enjoyable reading. I totally agree! Thanks for “saving” me some time!
Susan @ 2KoP says
I love “Before you fall in love with your character[s] … I want you to ruin your characters’ lives.” See, that’s the thing. I used to always want my MC to be perfect (boring). Flaws and problems create the escalating conflict necessary for a compelling plot. But those flaws are part of a well-drawn character. How one character would react to a problem is completely different than how another character would react. Therefore, you need to understand your character inside and out before you can understand how she will react to the ruination of her life. In this case, the basics of the plot can be drawn, but not colored in until you have a living, breathing character. IMHO.
Character – not characterisation – comes first if one considers ALL of the characters that are necessary for finding the story – but then these same characters would probably not need a story were they not already grappling with some problem. The question you pose is a false question, because it can’t be answered in an either/or way – fact is a dramatic character has no meaning, no life, no presence without conflict, and conflict has no way of making itself known to us without its emodiment in character and character actions.
I feel the same way as you, actually. A guest contributor wrote this post, and I thought he had an interesting perspective which had the potential to stir up some lively discussion. In my own writing, character and conflict are inextricably linked so that one cannot really come before the other. So, perhaps you’re right to point out that the question can’t be answered in an either/or manner. The intention was simply to get people thinking and discussing. Glad it caught your attention 🙂