Thursday, September 12, 2013

Nuts and Bolts: Characterization, Direct vs. Indirect

Characterization, Direct vs. Indirect

In much the same way that the basic building block of life is the cell, or of matter the subatomic particle, the basic element of story is character. We all know what a character is, but the question is how to represent one in storytelling. There are two basic types of characterization: Direct and Indirect. I’ll get to Indirect a bit later, but let’s start with Direct. Direct characterization occurs when the author directly tells the reader information about a character. Pretty straightforward. Sometimes, direct characterization is used because of space constraints or pacing or the like, but keep in mind that direct characterization, when overused, can become tedious to read. So limit its use except where strictly necessary, and be sure to make it as salient and interesting as possible. The closest popular mode of direct characterization that comes to mind, for me, is the voice over in film, especially in noir film (based, of course, on noir detective novels like those of Raymond Chandler). In these novels, the narrator often addresses the reader, and therefore describes characters directly. But the narrator also reveals quite a bit about himself through his word choice and through the details he chooses to share, so that the direct characterization of other, often minor, characters also acts as an indirect characterization of the narrator, and other major characters are characterized more fully in other ways.

What I’m getting at, here, is the major flaw of direct characterization, which is that it can be boring because it dumbs-down the story. The reader reads not in order to take in a writer’s brilliant word choice, like a dictionary-sponge, but rather to solve the puzzle of the story. This “puzzle” might be as straightforward as whodunit? Or it might be more subtle, like Will this character make the “right” decision? Will John Stay With Marsha? etc. But within this puzzle there are many, smaller puzzles, or perhaps pieces, like Who is this character (Who is John? Who is Marsha)? which help add to the reader’s understanding of the character’s actions. (That was a mouthful!) The reader must understand who the characters really are, why they behave the way they do (not just how they will behave, but WHY) and then, the reader can get to that big question of the story, which is how will this particular character behave in this particular situation, and is it surprising? But understand: this is all a kind of game for the reader. It’s fun to figure these things out, to accrue bits of characterization and piece them all together into an idea or image of a character, and then watch that character reach the breaking point (the decision-making point) AND STILL BE SURPRISED at the character’s decision! (I bet you didn’t realize you were working so hard when you read something!) So you don’t want to rob the reader of actually enjoying your writing!

But the writer doesn’t have to do ALL this work, which would be tremendous. Characters are based on people, and, as the saying goes, people are the same the world over. As writers, we can rely that our readers will recognize our characters as being similar enough to people they’ve met that they’ll “go with us” and fill in the gaps we leave. (The danger, here, is relying on clichéd or overly familiar characters, or “types.” Many writers and critics will argue that a “type” is okay in a minor character because the writer needs that character to be recognizable but can’t devote a lot of space to them. I’m on a fence about this. Of course, a great writer can take a minor character and make them really stand out, and a good writer can take a clichéd or familiar character and make them seem “new” by perhaps taking some clichéd quality and pushing it to absurdity, as Twain does with Pap, the abusive drunk, in Huck Finn (which I assume you’ve all read); Pap is such a bad man, that he revels in his badness and becomes genuinely funny because of it. Take, for example, his advice: “Take a chicken when you get a chance, because if you don't want him yourself you can easy find somebody that does, and a good deed ain't ever forgot. ” This is hilarious, of course, because of the idea of Pap not only waxing philosophical with life advice, but having a friend with whom he would share anything. But this is a discussion I’ll have to sideline for the moment. Everyone will agree that a major character cannot be a clichéd or familiar type if you want the story to be enjoyable.)

So how do we create memorable and enjoyable characters? Mostly by using indirect characterization. Indirect characterization involves the description of characters accomplished subtly, either through their actions and reactions, and the reactions of others to them. The way a character reacts to something another character says, the things a character chooses to share with the reader, even; there are all sorts of little methods of indirect characterization. When it’s done well, we, the reader, end up with a clear understanding of who the character is (what the character wants) without ever really being told this. Think of the aforementioned Huck Finn. Twain spends little time directly describing Huck, but we have a very clear idea of Huck’s desires, his age, where he’s from, his socioeconomic status, his profound intelligence, etc. Similarly, consider Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, who is in the midst of a mental breakdown but who is actually working towards something profoundly important about life, but most of what we’re told is how he just doesn’t want to grow up. Now, it’s easier to accomplish these kinds of memorable characters when first-person narration is used because the reader becomes intimately familiar with the character’s voice, but it’s also quite doable with third person or even second person narration. So let’s examine what it is about these characters that captivates us so we can see how best to use indirect characterization:
-A strong voice. As I’ve mentioned, through the character’s dialogue we, the reader, can determine all sorts of info about the character. His/her word choice might reveal an accent or regional indicators as well as age indicators, socioeconomic indicators, time period, etc. The things s/he chooses to say can tell us a lot about personality, as well, as will the way s/he says things. Flaws as well as positive qualities can be shared in this way quite effectively.
-A clear sense of their desires. Again, this shouldn’t be dumped on the reader. It should grow organically from complications in the plot. The character needs some clearly established goal which is difficult to accomplish. The harder the character tries to accomplish this goal, the more we understand how important it is. Also, the character’s reactions to these hardships helps the reader understand who the character really is, and refines our understanding of the character. To return to Huck Finn, we know that Huck wants to escape society because his dad is an abusive drunk, the widow is kind of mean and limits his personal freedom, etc. (Of course, Huck is on a journey of self-discovery and moral growth, and instead of hitting the reader over the head with this, Twain couches it in simple terms of friendship: Huck has to decide whether he wants to do right by his friend or follow society’s laws, but Twain never deigns to preach to us, the reader, about this. He lets Huck work it all out.)
-Physical attributes. Writers often rely on direct characterization in order to share physical attributes (and even a character’s name) but this can be done indirectly. Frankly, it’s difficult to do this directly without it coming off as a little heavy and forced. Other characters can accomplish this by commenting on appearance.

In order to create memorable, enjoyable characters (and let me clarify that a truly vile, evil character can be pretty enjoyable, again, think of Pap from Huck Finn, who is frankly hilarious, though most of us would probably vote to have him locked up for life or put to death if we could.) we have to understand these elements of our characters. We have to know the background info so that we can use it to shape our characters’ dialogue and reactions. Research can help with this, though to be honest our lives are research. Most writers will base characters on themselves, since that’s a lot easier to do, but eventually you want to break out of this. Of course, literature is full of badly-drawn characters. Think of Hemmingway or Updike when they attempt female characters, for example. Obviously there are no hard and fast rules, but I think it’s important to “listen” to your characters. Don’t force your values on a character if it doesn’t work for that particular situation. Remember: the easiest way to ensure that the reader has fun with your story is if you have fun with it.

-CL Bledsoe

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