Creativity Sessions: The Minutiae of Characterization

People are weird.

I don’t mean in the cynical I-don’t-want-to-engage-with-anyone way. I mean in the myriad ways in which we generally conduct ourselves; our ticks, habits, vocal cadence, personality quirks, the way we laugh.

Think about your closest three or four friends; the people whom you (hopefully) trust and know intimately. Don’t they each have a distinct laugh, whether the high-pitched titter or the soulful bellow? And, not one of them speaks in exactly the same manner, with the exact same inflection or vocabulary. Kind of weird, right?

No one has ever mistaken me for the “social butterfly” personality type, but I do enjoy large social settings. Of course, I like meeting and interacting with new and interesting people. But sometimes, I find it more entertaining to post up in the corner or off to the side of the main group and simply observe the way everyone else interacts. I am a habitual people watcher.

That’s why developing characters is so interesting to me, as I’ve discussed before. Trying to discern and describe my characters’ interactions and reactions to particular circumstances is like driving over a cloud-covered mountain. You can only see so much detail at one time, but eventually, you pull through the cloud, and the entire valley is revealed before you.

Showing Your Characters’ Character

How does a character show frustration? Do they furrow their brow? Do they avert their eyes and tighten their mouth?

“We have to stop this leak somehow,” Kayla said. But she just stood there, gaping at the tangle of pipes under the sink, her deeply furrowed brow shadowing her eyes.

What do these reactions say about that character? Perhaps the character who furrows their brow in frustration is pensive, and they rigorously try to solve any problem that is presented to them. Or, maybe they’re just dumb, and are dumbfounded by a puzzle that they can’t seem to solve. The reader is not yet able to tell.

Kayla sat with her legs crossed on the cushioned ottoman, her back erect. A pencil danced between her fingers as she stared down at a newspaper folded into an ink-stained notepad, the daily crossword staring back at her. She chewed the inside of her lip as her right eyebrow crinkled downward and her left arched into her forehead.

Is Kayla contemplative or ignorant? Does she scan the newspaper, running puzzle clues through her head before scratching down a viable answer, or does she just stare blankly at the white spaces hoping the words jump out at her? She could be doing either, depending on the reader’s interpretation. These snatches of description don’t capture the full picture, but the more Kayla is peppered with troublesome situations — or the more detail that is given in each scene — the easier it becomes to understand how she faces them.

Eventually, these little moments create a mosaic that comes to define Kayla as a character. The readers learn how to tell she is frustrated, or embarrassed, or elated, just as we would with a close friend.

The muscles around Kayla’s eyes and mouth were tightened, focusing all of their energy on the young man in the audience. Even as the young man asked an all-too-winded question about the potential ramifications of her proposal, Kayla’s gaze never wavered from his face. If the young man were more conscious of his surroundings than of his own voice, he might have felt like Kayla’s eyes drilling into him. At least she knew that she had the attention of everyone else in the audience.

I think each scene of a particular character has to be informed by the scene that precedes it, and subsequently informs the next one. The toughest part of this process to my mind is the first scene. The first impression of a character can often come to define how they are perceived — both by the reader and by the other characters — all the way to their stories’ end. Even if your ultimate perception of a character seems to contradict where they began, you are still defining them based on where they started, and how they got to the finish.

So, back to the generic social gathering. Observe. Listen. Watch. How do the characters around you interact? What does their body language say? How does the tone of their voice impact the way the are received by others? And, how do they interpret the people-watcher hanging off to the side, like an amateur participant observer?

Steve D

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