Susan’s Randoms: The Five Gifts of Characterization

Robin started a great train of thought this week–character building. I’ll be adding my five cents’ worth here. These are mental notes I keep on sticky notes around my computer to help me keep on track with my heroes, heroines, villains, and sidekicks. Since I don’t want to burn any bridges, I’ll be using examples from movies and not books:

1) Gift your character a secret. This ups tension throughout the story, and may even give your plot a cool little twist near the end. Let’s start basic: In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, only a handful of people know Buffy’s a Slayer. Not even her mother knows. Let’s go intermediate: In Little Miss Sunshine, the trek to get seven-year-old Olive to a beauty contest ends with her doing a striptease as her “talent”–a striptease know one knew about until she was gyrating on stage. Let’s go advanced: In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne has been digging through his cell wall for approximately 20 years. Again, you don’t find this out until about four-fifths of the way through the movie.

2) Gift your character a voice that is authentically them. I once read that you should be able to close your eyes and have someone read a page of a dialogue-heavy scene from your MS–without any “he-said-Mary-said” tags–and you should be able to tell who said what.

Example of muddied character dialogue:

a: And I still can’t believe I’m down here while you’re up there! And in your undergarments, no less!

b: I couldn’t very well climb up here in that gown, could I? Besides, if you broke your royal neck, where would we be?

a: You swim alone, climb rocks, rescue servants. Is there anything you don’t do?

This is from Ever After, the retelling of Cinderella with Drew Barrymore. “A” is supposed to be the prince, and “B” is Cinderella. But these lines sound like they’re from the same person! Not only do they have the same tone, but they both have the same humor. I can appreciate soulmates (and what is more soulmate-ish than Cinderella and Prince Charming), but c’mon! I’m sure even Eve had her own brand of humor, and she came from Adam’s rib!

3) Gift your character a goal in every chapter. This keeps the story and character moving. This can be a big goal, such as Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith “detonating” a virus in one of the alien’s ships in Independence Day. This can also be small, such as Dolly Parton putting up Julia Roberts’ hair for her wedding day in Steel Magnolias.

4) Give your character an obstacle that keeps her from accomplishing her goal in every chapter. This can be big (in a mystery, perhaps another dead body turns up or a shoulder wound sidelines the hero at the hospital). In Independence Day, it was Will and Jeff getting stuck in the ship’s dock after loading the virus. But this obstacle can also be small–and very effective. In Steel Magnolias, Julia Roberts’ character has a seizure that messes up her hair and also “outs” her health secret. You can also use an obstacle as a “two birds, one stone” device. In Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise’s character asks his son to pack all the food to prepare for their evacuation. Once they get to a safe point, Tom’s character goes through the box of food and only sees salad dressing, mustard, and other inedible condiments. These were the only things in his fridge, and it creates tension in the story (as well as a much-needed humorous moment).

5) Gift your character the “so what?” factor. Why should we care about this character and get involved with her life? Think back to the 2D heroines/heroes in some of the more recent movies. The DaVinci Code did a horrible job with Tom Hanks’ character, mainly because Dan Brown created cardboard characters to begin with (although his plot was top-notch!). Anyhoo, when The DaVinci Code got translated to the big screen, the director/writer decided to flesh out Tom’s character by giving him a “thing”–claustrophobia. It had nothing to do with the movie, or his personality, or a plot point (or if it did, it was certainly a contrived plot point). It makes me mentally groan just thinking about it.

One of the most 3D characters of all time? Andy Dufresne (The Shawshank Redemption is a total stuck-on-a-desert-island thing for me). He was an accountant, which gave him the skills to do the guards’ taxes and later the warden’s books, which in turn gave him his way out. He was quiet and trustworthy, and the hole behind the siren poster was just that greater of a surprise because of these qualities. And because he was so trustworthy–and trusting–him going to the warden about who really killed his wife was realistically naive.

So, anyone out there ready to gift your characters with some of these traits? All of them? Or are you going to be a Scrooge, pre-Christmas-Ghosts-Visit?




Filed under Susan's Randoms

2 responses to “Susan’s Randoms: The Five Gifts of Characterization

  1. Shelley Coriell

    Yessssss, one of the greatest Big Screen moments of all time was seeing Dufresne’s hole behind that pin-up! Thwap! I never saw that one coming. What amazing storytelling, made even more powerful by the story not told (the SECRET 20-year dig with a teaspoon!). As for gifting a character secrets…I love the concept. Excellent post.

    Shelley Coriell
    Big, Edgy Romantic Suspense

  2. Shell-

    The pin-up-hole-hider was definitely one of the best plot points I’ve ever seen. Here’s hoping we create our own pin-up-hole-hider in every manuscript we write!


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