Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Last of the Characterization

Back to characterization for one last post on the subject.

Unless you are writing from a true omniscient, POV (point of view) plays a huge role in how the reader will perceive your characters. And that is exactly why I do not like omniscient. I much prefer to view or reveal my fictional worlds through the eyes of whatever narrator I've chosen.

The things your character notices and reveals to the reader also says a lot about them. Two men walk into a hunting cabin. One is in his sixties. he just retired after forty years as assembly line worker for a Ford plant. The other is a thirty-one year old day trader. Neither owns the cabin. Let's say a mutual buddy built the thing himself, and he's out chopping wood for the wood burning heater when the arrive. Neither of our two characters have ever been to the cabin when they arrive at nearly the same time.

A snippet of the scene with the autoworker as the POV.

Eyeballing the woods surrounding the cabin, Rick Hargrove nodded at the location. Pines and aspens dotted the hillside sloping p away from the back porch of the place and off to the right. Despite the cold November air, Rick had left his truck window down the last three miles of the trip to better enjoy the pine scented air. He was eager to get out and start scouting for the hunt, but after the long drive his knees had stiffened so he took his time getting out of the pickup.

Off in the distance, Rick heard the echoing thwack of steel on wood, most likely Larry off playing lumberjack. Rick stepped around to the side of the cabin to drain off the last of the convenience store coffee before heading out into the forest to help his buddy haul back logs for the fireplace.

The reader will not know any specifics about Rick, but they can guess he's older and somewhat patient since he took the time to notice the surroundings and enjoy the scent. The reader also knows he's willing to pull his own weight.

Greg Larsen gritted his teeth, but finally he could see the cabin. These last three miles had been hell. The road narrow and rutted. He could have gone faster but he hated the idea of scratching the paint on his Land Rover. Pulling up behind a beat of old Ford Truck, Greg swung the driver's door open and stepped out in to the cold. Unzipping his pants he took a piss right there beside his SUV. The sound of wood being chopped filled the air as Greg examined the cabin. No way i hell was there any electricity way out here, but Larry had a generator. Or so he said. So what the hell was with the huge stack of firewood piled on the porch?

At least there was a shitload already cut. Greg had come up here to hunt mule deer not imitate Paul Bunyon.

Okay so the writing in those samples wasn't all that great but I wanted to throw something out there to try and illustrate what I mean by POV influence. I'm guessing few readers will like the second character. They certainly won't warm up to him as easily s the second. They noticed and did most of the same things but their unique personalities colored those observations and as a writer it is your job to use those characters observations to influence the reader.

It is very important hat you write each scene from the POV of the intended character, not your own and not in some generic tone or style for every character in the novel. Think about the things important o you character. One that notices only the name brand on other's jeans and shoes will give the reader a different perception from a character that stoops down to pick up[ a penny on the sidewalk.

Writers need to get into the character every bit as much as an actor does before a scene. Forget who you are and remember who's eyes you are writing through.

That brings us to dialogue. Where you once again must be true to that character. If your character is an English school teacher she better not say, "You're momma ain't here so pick up you own mess." And if you character is a big hairy Texan he better not say, I am about to leave for the store would you guys like to join me." Hell no, he should say, "I'm fixin to head to go the store. Y'all want go?"

But beside dialect, you can use conversation to reveal characterization. Imagine, your protagonist is a nurse that normally works a 12 hour shift but this time she left work early after the onset of a migraine. At home she walks into her bedroom only to find her husband in the arms of a buxom redhead.

I'm purposely going to leave out any actions takes since we as writers often get lazy and use them to convey emotion rather than the actual words.

Reaction one ...

"You cheating piece of shit!"
"Don't Honey me. In our bed? How could you?"
"A man gets lonely. And your hardly home. And when you are you're usually sleeping."
"This is what you do every night? Screw some tramp while I'm out earning us a living?"
"No. Not every night. I just --"
"Save it. And no stay right where you are. Both of you. Don't let me interrupt your little fun. I'll just grab a few things and leave you to enjoy each other. It's about time some other stupid woman supported you anyway."

Reaction two ...

"Why? Why oh why are you doing this to us?"
"Honey it's not what it looks like."
"Then what is it."
"Okay maybe it is, but a man gets lonely. And you're hardly ever home. And when you are you're usually sleeping."
"One of us has to work and I can't help the only job I could find was graveyards. You made a promise the last time.
"I know baby and I'm sorry. Roxy was just leaving anyway. Come sit down let's talk through this."

Reaction three ...

"I knew it. I knew you could never change. None of you can."
"Honey, it's not --"
"Please. All you men are alike."
"I can't help it that I get lonely. You're hardly ever home. And when you are you're sleeping."
"Save the sad story for the judge."

Those examples aren't all that great and part of that is because I do not really know these characters and have not done the background work I mentioned in part 1. Nevertheless the character in reaction 1 is dumbfounded. Probably shocked and maybe the guy will alter talk his way out of trouble maybe not. Reaction two, the woman is a pushover. She probably expected this day to come but since she won't hold him accountable it really doesn't matter. He might have to sleep on the couch a night or two but within a few days he'll be back in her good graces. Until his wife reaches a breaking point this scene will probably be repeated. Of course when she does break there may be a tube of Superglue, a pair of testicles, and a trip to the ER in a later scene.Reaction 3 is more definite. The guy was on his last chance and it's over. Most likely, divorce lawyers will be part of the next scene.

And I'm out of time but do want to mention that actions of characters speak very loudly as well, but don't use them as a crutch to hold up dialogue. They should accompany each other. The character in reaction one might have taken her shoes off and thrown them at the copulating couple in bed. In reaction two she would have wiped away tears, or lowered her head, Maybe even crumpled to the floor. Reaction three I can hear the slamming of the door as she left.

Above all else YOU, THE WRITER, smut know the character to truly make them come alive for others. Interview them, write backstory about them, cut pictures out of magazines that make you think of them. Do whatever it takes to make them come alive in your mind and then write them. But as you do make sure you are totally immersed in their head and paint the world as they would see it. Do that and your reader will soon begin to think they are real.

Characterization part 1 and part 2 can be found by clicking on the numbers.


Melanie Avila said...

Travis, this is wonderful! So many times I read that dialogue and observations should show us who the character is, but you've done a great job showing the specifics. This post is definitely worth re-reading!

And I never point out typos, but smut in the last paragraph was too giggle-worthy not to mention.

Eric said...

This has been a great series, and I'm glad you've worked through it for us. Characterization is one area I struggle with from time to time, so thanks.

Cloudia said...

Travis: This is such wonderful and accessible advice; you really should teach writing - guess you are to all of us readers!
Much appreciated, do try to visit my Bloom's Day Celebration over to my blog today if you can....
"The things your character notices and reveals to the reader also says a lot about them." YES!


powdergirl said...

Wow, there's a lot to be learned here.
Very informative series.
I'm no writer, but it's very interesting even to an avid reader.

Percy said...

I write in 1st person since I write about myself, but often wonder how my adventures would read in 3rd person.

Very much enjoyed your post.


Beth said...

In essence, a writer must be capable of possessing (or at least imagining & conveying) multiple personalities! And that requires quite the imagination along with attention to detail.
You explain the work involved re: POV extremely well.

Charles Gramlich said...

I never liked the omniscient narrator either. Half the fun of reading is picking up the character's personality through getting in close to their thoughts and behaviors.

Babe in Babeland said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog! I'm so impressed--losing 20 pounds in two months!!! How did you do it??! I would be ecstatic if I lost 20 pounds in 2 months. That's actually how much weight I want to lose, so if I could do it two months, man oh man, that would be GRRREAT.

I like your blog...I'm a writer and I am trying to work on a novel. So this will be a great reference for me...

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Great refresher! Thanks!