Write This Way Wednesday: Characterization

Last week I left you with some helpful advice from Brian Doyle. This week I’ll be discussing the topic of characterization with a little help from David Corbett and his article “Characters, Scene By Scene,” published in the January 2015 edition of Writer’s Digest. He begins by discussing the “laundry list” we are taught to make for our characters, which focuses on three major areas. The physical attributes of your character, the psychological aspect, and the sociological. However, it’s not the list that makes the characters come to life. Corbett says “that once the writing started, the characters “took on lives of their own,” taking me in directions I hadn’t anticipated.” He says that this is fine as long as they take you somewhere interesting, but even at that you must have a good narrative. So the question becomes, how do you get all of that “laundry list” information into the story, and at the same time help your characters take on that life of their own? His answer is scene.
To begin with, Corbett reiterates the age old truth that actions and words reveal more of a person’s character than what they think or feel. Thoughts and feelings are kept inside a person and are also subject to change due to time and/or circumstance, whereas words and actions are out there in the world and once words are spoken or an action is executed, it can’t be taken back. With this in mind, dropping a character into a scene and letting them react gives insight to and helps build a character. A technique, or exercise if you will, that aids in this developing of a character, is fleshing out different emotionally trying scenes, scenes of helplessness. Flesh these out, whether you use them or not, because they will help give you a better grasp and understanding of your character. He advises that before this is attempted, however, try to have a basic understanding of your story, more specifically the three key elements of the problem (what the main characters want), the insight (the revelation the character has about himself and/or his world in his struggle with the problem), and the decision (the life-changing choice prompted by insight).
From this, Corbett delves into more detail regarding the three main character aspects mentioned above. Regarding the physical nature of characters, he says this is more than just what your character looks like. Ask questions like How does my character’s appearance make her feel? and How does it make others feel about her? Consider how things like race, age, health, etc. affect how your character interacts with other characters and how they react to different situations.
For your character’s psychological nature, there are deeper things to explore to determine his actions/reactions. What fears does your character have and how do those fears influence the character’s actions? Other psychological aspects to consider are love (who and what does your character love), guilt (what things might your character have done to inspire feelings of guilt), failure (how does your character respond to failure), and death (has he lost someone dear to him, does he fear death, etc.). These are but a few of the psychological aspects that can add depth to a character.
Finally, Corbett discusses the sociological aspect of characterization. In a nutshell, where psychological deals with the things inside of a character, sociological deals with the things on the outside. Many of these will actually contribute to the psyche of your character. How does your character interact with his or her family and why? What types of friendships does your character have? Do they have one close friend, or many friends that she keeps at a distance? Why? What is your character’s home life like? Where does he or she feel most comfortable?
I hope you’ve been able to take away as much as I have from this article. After reading this, I feel like I’ve been doing it wrong all along, lol. If you enjoyed this and would like to see what else Mr. Corbett has to say on the craft, you can visit his website at davidcorbett.com


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