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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » The Importance of Characterization?

   
Author Topic: The Importance of Characterization?
theokaluza
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I've got a relatively simple question that I can't seem to figure out a simple answer for... how important is strong, deep characterization in a story that doesn't chiefly focus on the characters, but rather on some other aspect of the story?

Example: There is a short story (which is kind of more like a short essay, but it's still storylike) called Lenses by Annie Dillard. In the story, she describes two scenes. In one scene, she is a small child looking through a microscope at some algae pulled from a lake. In the following scene, she is a grown woman looking at swans flying above the lake.

It's more involved than that, though. Mostly, the story isn't about the character, or even the setting, but it is about the subtext within the story. The subtext is the story.

Another great example is called Once More To The Lake, though I forget who that one is by. It's about a man who takes his son to a lake that his family used to visit. The entire story is mostly the narrator talking about how his own son reminds him of how he was, and then comparing the world now to the world then, with a kind of general feeling of eternity in the background.

The story isn't about the characters, or even the events along the plotline. It's about timelessness and, ultimately, mortality.

They are both great stories, engrossing. But neither of them have anything close to real characterization.

A more popular version of this might be Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. While there is more characterization in it than in the above two examples, the book is mostly about the thing that happen to the characters, and to the world they inhabit.

The first two examples are considered, generally, to be modern literary classics. The last example is considered to be, if nothing else, a great peice of cyberpunk fiction.

Why is it, especially among writer's groups, that such a strong emphasis is placed on characterization? I've read OSC's C&V, and I mostly agree with him. However, C&V is by no means canonical in the world of fiction and literature and so forth.

What do you think? How important is characterization? Is it possible to write a story, long or short, that has very little characterization... and still have it be enjoyable and engaging? If not, why? What would you personally rather read?


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Beth
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It's a big world with lots of stories in it. Some people read for character. Some people read for subtext. A lot of the people here are strongly influenced by Card, so it's hardly surprising that that's reflected in their preferences.
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Elan
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I'm not sure you have to go deep into the characterization if you aren't writing a character oriented story, particularly if it's only a short story and not a novel. You DO want to make sure your characters don't come across as cardboard cutouts, or caricatures. If all that is important to the story is a snapshot of the character's personality, then describe that snapshot as convincingly as possible. But you don't need to go into details about the backstory or any unrelated personality flaws.

The longer your story, the more important it is to flesh your characterization out.

I'm struggling with this same issue to some degree, albeit from a different angle. My WIP is a novel, and I'm introducing several characters who are making only a brief appearance. Normally a "walk on" role requires only the sketchiest of characterizations. However, I intend to write a second book, and the characters I'm introducing now will have far more involved roles in the next story. I am setting up the relationships between characters right now. I am trying to find a balance between "too much" and "not enough"...


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wbriggs
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I haven't read those stories; they don't sound interesting to me. But here's one that does: Alice. Alice is not deeply characterized, and she needs to be fairly ordinary or we'd be totally lost in her bizarre explorations. Similarly, Lucy in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, seems to be a very nice, but otherwise very ordinary, child. And she's just the right viewpoint.

To me, Alice and Lucy seem like minimal characterization; but they're perfect. If we'd known any less about them, I'd have felt confused. Just my reactions.


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rickfisher
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Asimov's The Last Question has about as little characterization as you'll find in a story, but it's great anyway.

I think Elan made the best point:

quote:
You DO want to make sure your characters don't come across as cardboard cutouts, or caricatures.
You don't need in depth characterization for characters to seem completely real. "Normal" people make fine characters; they're just not "interesting" in and of themselves. If the story is about something other than the characters and their interactions, then they don't need to be quirky and complex. More accurately, you don't need to delve into their complexity. But since pretty much everyone is complex, if you present your characters in a way that makes it apparent that they are not complex (i.e., cardboard or caricature), they won't be believable. The more stage time a character has, the more facets of his or her character need to emerge--just to keep the reader convinced that it's a real character. But more than that isn't necessary if it's not a character story, or at least a character-driven story.

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Spaceman
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Character is everything.
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Jeraliey
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The purpose of a character in a story is to provide an aspect of an unfamiliar story that a reader can relate to.

Giving the people in your stories strong characterizations allows the reader to relate themselves to the character and to the story...what they have in common or not, whether they would react the same or differently to the situations, etc.

Want a bad simile? It's like the handle on a basket. You could pick up the basket without the handle, but having a handle to grab onto makes it easier. Ok, that'll be the last bad simile for a while, I promise.

If you don't engage in characterization, the reader may automatically impose him or herself upon your character...and then reject the character's actions and motivations because they don't necessarily make sense within the context of the reader's life. But providing that sense of a real person within the character gives the reader a sense of seeing the story and the choices made in it as those of another, REAL person, with his own life, history, and motivations.

I hope that makes some kind of sense.

[This message has been edited by Jeraliey (edited January 27, 2006).]


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Susannaj4
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I agree with Spaceman, but at the same time, what they are doing is the story as well. You have to blend the two. In a short story, you can focus on the scene and the emotional response, but in a novel, a definite character description is necessary so you don't wonder why this person is performing this action because your initial reaction is that it's out of character from the information given.
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luapc
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I would say that in a short story, strength of character is even more important since there is less time to develop the character. I believe that the current trend by readers is to expect strong characters more than strong environments, settings, or plots. Like Spaceman said, character is everything, no matter whether it's a short story or a novel.

Now realize, that I am a character oriented writer, and most of the other writers here are likely to be as well. I personally agree with OSC when he says that strong characters can carry a poor plot. There are writers that believe the opposite--that a strong plot can carry poorly developed and cardboard characters.

You have to determine which type of writing works best for yourself, but I would point out that having both strong characters and a good and interesting plot makes for a great story of any length.

[This message has been edited by luapc (edited January 27, 2006).]


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Spaceman
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Don't give me credit for the quote Character is everything. I learned it from David Gerrold, who in turn learned it from D.C. Fontana.

Pass it on.

[This message has been edited by Spaceman (edited January 27, 2006).]


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rickfisher
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Well, don't expect me to pass it on.

Characterization is a tool. It may be the best single tool writers have, but it's still a tool. Great characters can carry a weak plot, but they can't carry no plot at all, or a ridiculous plot, just as a great plot can carry weak characters, even though it can't carry unbelievable characters. (Of course, the definitions of "ridiculous plot" and "unbelievable characters" vary from person to person.)

Characters are certainly not EVERYTHING. Believability, resolution, conflict and other elements of writing undeniably have their place.

By the way, I'm not saying that you can't reach all the other elements by way of character. I'm just saying that those other elements are not, in and of themselves, character, and that they can be achieved by other means as well.


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Kolona
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Maybe we should split hairs about characters versus characterization. Characters may be everything in a character story, but they aren't everthing in a milieu, idea or event story. But the characters in all stories should have great characterization.
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Spaceman
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quote:
but they can't carry no plot at all

Damon Knight would disagree.

quote:
A plot, then, is a series of imaginary events designed to create anticipation at high pitch, either in the form of anxiety or of curiosity.
- Damon Knight, creating Short Fiction


and then...

quote:
A plotted story has a skeletal structure that can be extracted and examined: the story makes sense if you just tell what happens in it. This is not true of unplotted stories. Consider, for example, Ernest Hemingway's Big Two-Hearted River....Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych is simply the chronicle of a man's life; the same can be said of Willa Cather's Neigh or Rosicky. In these stories, we are profoundly moved, not by drama, but by the inner meanings of a human being's existence.
- Damon Knight, Creating Short Fiction


The Grand Master Speaketh: A character can carry a story with no plot.


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Survivor
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Spaceman has a point there. Fiction, by it's nature, abounds in events that are improbable or impossible. The key to making those events seem real to the reader is through believable characterization.

But believable characterization doesn't have to be deep or complex, it can be as simple as Alice's little-girl naivete. If we instantly recognize the character as someone we've met in real life (even though, in fact, we only think we've met such a person), then there is no inherent need to belabor the point.

Ernest Hemingway's characters tended towards extreme simplicity, and yet they were drawn from his experience of humanity (what this says about his relationships with women is best left unsaid ). Ivan Ilych is an everyman, an antihero who kills himself trying to adjust the drapes in his living room. His struggle to accept death centers around the fact that his life has been so devoid of magnitude.

The real struggle with characterization comes when you want to introduce the readers to a person they've never met in real life, perhaps have never even imagined. That's where you need to use all your abilities just to convince the readers that such a person is possible. Then you need to explore the character's depth and complexity.

And of course, you can always do it just for fun, using a character of the sort that we all think we already understand.


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rickfisher
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I guess I have a different definition of plot from Damon Knight. If there's a resolution, there's a plot. Slice of life "stories" have never managed to move me, regardless of the quality of the characterization. If it goes beyond simple "slice of life," well, then it has a chance.
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Spaceman
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I understand what you are saying, and I certainly have written stories where the idea was more central than the characters.

I'm not going to put words into the mouth of any grand master, but my interpretation is that a strongly characterized story is more likely to move the reader than a story with cardboard characters. I was captivated by Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, but I still felt cheated in the end because the characters didn't really change in any appreciable way. The story is summarized thus: We came, we saw, we went home.

The Lord of the Rings is another milieu story and the major characters were well developed in comparison to Rama. I think that is why Tolkien's story is still a hit, and Clarke's fades away into the past. The characters matter, and readers want to care about them.


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rickfisher
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Absolutely. A strongly characterized story is far more likely to move the reader. A story with a great plot is far more likely to be fun to read. A story with neat ideas is far more likely to set you thinking about all the possible ramifications. A story with all that is far more likely to be a masterpiece.
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lyndafitz
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I'm another one of those "character" lovers, and I want them to interact with one another. I flip through a book to see how much dialogue there is before I buy it. For years I didn't realize what left me cold about some obviously beautifully-written, well-plotted books. Now I realize I wanted actual three-dimensional characters to love or hate.

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Miriel
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It seems like we're spliting hairs. Some famous British author said, "Character is plot." I agree with him. I don't think you can have one without the other. What a character does (plot) defines their character, and their character determines the decisions they make, and hence the plot. Lucy, from C.S. Lewis, was mentioned as an example of a character with little characterization. I agree. But there is characterization, and you see it in the plot. She's extraordinarily honest, and refuses to lie about having been to Narnia. In turn, the older two children worry, and Edmund teases her -- and when they find out it's all real, tension between Peter and Edmund arises. Also, Lucy's honesty makes her want to save Mr. Tumnus. And that same care about others is what causes her to follow Aslan the night he goes to the stone table. It might not be "deep characterization," but the plot reflects who she is, and helps drive the plot. Edmund does more plot-driving in the book, and subsequently, his character is more detailed. You have to have characterization, or the plot won't be cohesive. Likewise, you have to have plot, or characters don't exist.

My 2 cents.


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