The Skill List Project: Characterization Skills and Sources

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I said we’d begin looking at the skills associated with characterization. (Gulp!) It’s a huge topic, and one on which there are wide differences of opinion. Since I’m a natural fence-straddler, I’ll try to recognize multiple schools of thought on the subject, but in this first posting, I just want to lift the lid a little and peek inside.

Acquiring Skills

I’ve based this whole series of posts on the premise that writing skills can be developed. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as innate talent, in writing or anything else—different branches of psychology are still battling that one out—but I do know that obsessing about your innate potential won’t achieve anything. Whether or not some muse ever kisses you on the brow, you can learn and develop many crucial writing skills…and those are a writer’s minute-to-minute bread-and-butter, the craft that will help you write the next sentence.

Skills grow with practice—intelligent practice. That means three things: first, you must write a lot…and not just exercises, but concerted attempts at real complete stories; second, you must actively review what you’ve written, taking note of both the strengths and weaknesses; third, after reviewing, you must establish a plan that will let you make improvements.

I like to compare this process to athletics. If, for example, you want to get better at tennis, you have to play a lot of tennis. Non-game exercises are great too—weight training to improve your strength, wind sprints to improve your speed, long distance runs to improve your stamina—but you still have to play a lot of tennis!

You also have to assess how you’re doing. If you play match after match, but never stop to ask, “What is working and what isn’t?” you’ll only make progress by random luck. Serious players examine their hits and misses, rather than plowing blindly forward without ever looking back.

After such analyses, you have to chart a course of what you’ll do next: how to fill the gaps in your game and move to a higher level of play.

Writing is the same. Write a lot, review your writing, make a plan that will help you improve your skills. Always bear that in mind as a subtext for these “Skill List” posts.

Building a Character

When it comes to characterization, how do you develop skills? Here are some places to start.

1. Read voraciously, judiciously, and analytically.

Immerse yourself in how other writers create characters. Pull apart what they do. Ask yourself what works and what doesn’t. Ask yourself what “working” really means.

2. See how actors do it.

There are a gazillion books on acting, and almost all of them offer techniques for building a character. At first glance, it may seem that actors and writers have nothing in common: after all, a writer creates a character starting with a blank page, while an actor is “given” a character by the script.

But when you read “how to act” books, you’ll see that actors can do a lot more than just memorize and deliver lines. Consider the old chestnut of “What’s my motivation?” This isn’t just a question for actors; writers should also care deeply about why their characters do what they do. Acting techniques for coming to grips with motivation can often be incorporated into a writer’s bag of tricks.

The same applies to the techniques that actors use in order to dramatize a character’s internal attributes. If a character has a certain personality trait, how does an actor make that trait visible on stage? Writers have to wrestle with similar questions. For example, if a character is angry but trying to hide it, what actions or tone of voice will make that clear to an audience? Writers can use actor tricks to achieve the same end.

Books on acting technique have loads of valuable advice that writers can use. As a place to start, let me suggest Impro by Keith Johnstone and A Practical Handbook for the Actor by Melissa Bruder (et al). Both have valuable insights. However, I’d also recommend just going to your local library, finding the Acting section, and taking out anything that looks interesting.

And why stop at books? Actually acting (or at least taking an acting class) can really open your eyes to what “creating a character” means. I did acting and improv for years, and I consider that time to have been a vital part of my writer training. (I might note that Ken Levine, a writer on Cheers, M*A*S*H, and many other comedies, still takes regular improv classes. He considers it an important part of honing the skills he needs for writing.)

3. (Putting on my +5 Helmet of Ridicule Defense) Learn from role-playing games.

RPGs have a reputation for being juvenile, and often deservedly so; many gaming tables have a grimy coating of sexism, racism, mindless violence, and other bad behavior. But it doesn’t have to be so—many good works of SF have arisen from role-playing campaigns, such as Steven Brust‘s Vlad Taltos series and Steven Erikson‘s Malazan books.

Furthermore, many modern role-playing systems work hard to rise above the lowest common denominator. They offer advice on how to make gaming sessions character-based rather than mere hack-’n'-slash…and as writers, we can learn from that advice. We can avail ourselves of what’s useful and discard what’s (ahem) ill-formed.

For example, I like many of the character creation ideas in Strands of Fate from Void Star Games (especially the material starting at page 17 in my copy). In particular, the game manual suggests ways to think about such things as the character’s ambitions, background, convictions, and disadvantages (e.g. character flaws or personal obstacles that are likely to impede the character’s ability to achieve his/her goals).

These are issues that writers cannot ignore. If you can’t sketch out the ambitions of every major character in a story, then you don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing. (Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”)

The same applies to convictions: if you don’t know what characters believe, you really don’t know who those characters are. How can you write about them?

Now, there’s an obvious danger of simplistic reductivism. I couldn’t possibly list all of my own personal ambitions or convictions…and even if I managed to articulate the top three of each, their order of precedence would change several times a day. Real people are clouds of nebulous characteristics, not one-note wonders. Even so, if you have a character and you can’t write down a single thing that the character wants or believes, how can you use that character in a story? He or she is a doormat: nonfunctional.

(Note that I’ve avoided saying anything about background. Obviously, a character’s backstory is hugely important, but everyone knows that. In my experience, novice writers are more likely to dwell too much on background rather than skimp on it—they spend hours dreaming up a cool life history, but never decide what drives the character to get up out of his/her chair. When push comes to shove in your story, why will your character run toward the trouble instead of away? That’s what you need to know.)

One last note: Strands of Fate suggests establishing an overall “defining concept” for a character. I’m squeamish about this—significant characters need to be more than just cardboard figures summed up in a single pithy phrase. That said, it’s a danger sign if you can’t come up with a first-cut summation of each character. Hamlet is much more than “a young too-cerebral prince seeking to avenge his father’s murder”, but that phrase is still a useful gateway into the character. If you can’t come up with something similar for each major character in a story, it may mean that your grasp of your characters is too vague. You can still start writing the story; just acknowledge that you’ll need to sharpen up your understanding in the long run.

Comments?

There’s much more to say about characterization, but I’ve talked enough for one month. Instead, I’ll turn it over to you: what sources have you found that helped you think about building characters?

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  1. 1. Seabrooke

    I’m glad you mentioned video games. I usually get that reaction of suppressed ridicule when I mention to someone that I, a mature woman, play them. But it’s true that there are lots of well-designed games that have amazing stories in them, with well-developed characters, and that’s the main reason I play. I think they’re as much a valid source of story as books and movies.

  2. 2. Mary

    I don’t think it’s fair to discuss this without mentioning the drawback: it will change how you read for pleasure. Forever. You will never again be able to shut off the little analytic imp that analyzes while you read.

  3. 3. Mary

    On the relationship of writing and acting:
    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/18/act-like-a-writer/

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James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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