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Surprise with Character

Updated: Oct 1, 2021

Writer Tips Advice Blog 1 July 21 by Lorenzo Samuel, author of speculative fiction writings. In the last Writer Tips Advice Blog, we went over consistency of story elements. For this issue of the blog, I will take up another tip that relates to, can enhance, reader interest: characterization and character.

In the book Story by Robert McKee, the author makes a distinction between characterization and character. Here is what he says about characterization: “Characterization is the sum of all the observable qualities, a combination that makes the character unique: physical appearance coupled with mannerisms, the style of speech and gesture, sexuality, age, IQ, occupation, personality, attitudes, values, where he lives, how he lives.” Most people leave off at that when asked to describe someone. However, let’s dig deeper.

Behind this trite description, there is the true person as described as the true character: Is he loyal or disloyal? Loving or cruel? Brave or a coward? According to McKee, we need put this characterized person to the test: “True character can only be expressed through choice in dilemma. How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is―the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character.”

Example: An accountant has a personal financial situation that is causing her a great deal of worry due to her being broke. She must make payment the next day. She has been given authority by her company’s president to sign documents in his name. She expects a big bonus in two-week’s time. She can easily take money out of the company account and replace it later; however, company policy says no loans to employees. She convinces herself that taking the money from company funds can be considered an advance against her bonus. She takes the money, pays off her debt and replaces the money in two weeks with no one the wiser.

Up to this point, all we know about her is characterization. Now, we have her under pressure. How she responds to it will tells us about her character. Is she honest for instance? How about her integrity? Is she dedicated to her job? Her company? Her boss? Is she trustworthy? Devious? Would you want her for a friend? A life partner? What does the incident in the previous paragraph tell you about her?

In general, you would want character to be exposed at some turning point in your story. You might have written about her such that your readers admire her ‒ perhaps even want to be like her. Then, see her make a decision under pressure that gives them a deeper view. Suddenly readers are more interested in this person and what she does.

Later in your story she makes another decision under even greater pressure, say some situation threatening her job or marriage. What will she do? Will she succumb or redeem herself? Will you root for her or wish she gets what’s coming to her? She pulls it off. Now, she becomes a more complicated protagonist. Interest goes up! Divulging character builds interest. Work on it.

In the next issue of the blog in the category of Reader and Writer tips, I’ll discuss plot development.

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