My friend Jacob asked if we could talk about writing fiction over pancakes.
“Sure,” I said. “Just don’t make many for me. I’m not a voracious breakfast eater.” I rode the 50-year-old elevator up to his downtown apartment. I wondered if I would make it up to the fourth floor, the thing was so old, or if it would crash me to my doom. It smelled like dust.
I arrived safely though, and Jacob and I got to work.
“I know it’s important to create really well-developed characters,” he said. “Do have any advice about how to do that or any resources?”
Characterization. It’s one of those topics they teach at the beginning of writer’s workshops and creative writing classes. I, of course, could have given him a textbook answer about character development. I could have sent him along brainstorming back story and cataloging the tics and traits of his as-of-yet non-existent protagonist.
But I didn’t do that.
I’m about to say something provocative, something that may alienate me to writing professors everywhere. Here it is. You ready?
Characterization is Worthless
Worse than worthless, characterization might even be harmful to the writing of your story. Let me explain.
Good characters are the reason we read stories. We develop a relationship with Elizabeth Bennett, Holden Caulfield, and Harry, the boy who lived. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy become our best buds, and when the story ends we’re sad they have to leave us. Have you ever heard of fan fiction? Some fourteen-year-old from Iowa wants to hang out with Harry after Hogwarts so they write a story and post it in a forum.
Good characters are why most people read, I think. However, in order to create a character people want to be BFF with, the characterization is secondary. In fiction, plot reveals character.
For example, this is what my screenwriting professor told me about the three act structure: your protagonist climbs a tree, you throw rocks at him, and then she gets down. You have to throw rocks at your characters. You have to find elaborate ways of making their lives hell. You have to stymie their desire and fail to meet their basic needs: food, shelter, companionship, significance.
Why? Because that’s how you reveal their character.
You don’t start writing a story with characterization. You do what Allie Fox did to his son in Mosquito Coast, you push them into the dark, scary bowels of Fat Boy. You send them up the sails of a ship tossing in a hurricane. You take them to Belize. You make a man out of them, against their will and better judgment.
If, instead, you start with characterization you inevitably fall in love with your character prematurely. This is a real danger. How will you do the necessary work of torturing them until they cry out in agony if you empathize with them too much too soon? Better to punish them before you know who they are yet.
Joy Comes From Pain
Jacob told me more about his novel. It’s a good idea. I’m excited to read it. The punchline is a wise and seldom heard truth: joy comes from pain. The advice I gave him about how to do characterization was his own idea. Life comes from death. Clarity comes from confusion. As your character reacts to and deals with the pain, we’ll see who they are.
For fifteen minutes, put a generic character, he or she, through a challenging and painful event. How do they react? Do they turn and run? Do they fight? Do they try and talk their way out of it? As you answer these questions, you’ll start to see who “he” or “she” is.
Post your practice in the comments section. Good luck!