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February 10, 2015

Creative Writing: Characterization

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We know that you visit Teenreads.com because you love to read YA novels, but we bet that there's a significant number that aims to write them, too. Teen Board member Alison S. certainly falls into both categories, and below, she talks about one of the most important aspects of creative writing: characterization. Read about some of her own struggles with this make-or-break-a-book topic, and maybe it will give you some ideas for how to approach your own novel-to-be!

 


 

 

A tragedy isn’t a tragedy without victims. If readers don’t empathize with your characters, why should they invest in your novel’s storyline? Think of characterization as the outfit you wear to a college admissions interview; a three-piece suit might not guarantee you admission to Harvard, but touring the campus naked ensures you won’t get accepted. While spectacular character development can’t redeem an insipid plot, a one-dimensional protagonist can deaden readers to a compelling storyline in about five pages flat.

 

A lack of sympathetic characters didn't derail my novel-in-progress, however --- an overabundance of them did.

 

Let me explain.

 

My current project began as a fairly simplistic story of four characters: Margie, Kait, Matt and Levi. One of these characters --- spoiler alert, it’s Matt --- betrays Margie and 200-something pages of literary brilliance ensures.

 

“Okay,” you’re probably thinking, “just have him betray her and get on with it.”

 

If I did that, however, readers might not sympathize with my darling Matt --- and we can't have that. So instead of allowing the plot to progress as it should, I crammed yet another subplot into an already-rambling storyline.

 

“Alright,” I reasoned to myself, “let’s give Matt a crazy, overbearing mother. Who’s also immortal. And an android. Then I can spin his necessary act of betrayal into some crazy whim of Viola-the-Psycho-Mom. And anything Matt does personally, well, I can just say his deranged mother coerced him into it.”

 

If only it had been that simple.

 

But as I slogged merrily through the rest of the novel, another disconcerting thought crept into my mind: what if readers didn't sympathize with Matt’s psychopathic, possibly murderous mother?

 

“Okay,” I thought to myself, “you can fix this. Just give Viola daddy issues. Blame everything on her crazy-abusive father. Give her some sort of guilt complex. And a crying scene. And a monologue --- but not the supervillain kind. A piteous one.”

 

To my sleep-deprived novelist brain, this plan seemed like the perfect solution. A real marvel of character development. Surely, my readers would have to pity a guilt-addled, sobbing villainess with daddy issues.

 

Now that I’m trying to wrangle the rough draft into something readable, however, I’ve discovered a rather alarming byproduct of my seemingly flawless plan: my manuscript more closely resembles a monologue book, interspersed with a few short bursts of, you know, actual plot, than a real, bonafide novel. Turns out, if you give every villain a tragic life story to explain away their villainy, you get a book stuffed with more half-baked excuses than a second grade classroom.

 

Someday, Viola -the-Psycho-Mom might get her own fictionalized biography à la Gregory Maguire’s WICKED, where she can lament about her cruddy childhood to her icy heart’s content. Until then, however, Viola should resign herself to indefensible, unadulterated villainy. Don’t get me wrong --- I’ll develop Viola’s character as much as possible within the plot line of my novel. I won’t, however, contort my storyline to flatter a fundamentally-twisted character.

 

That’s harder said than done, however. On some level, all my characters reflect an aspect of my own personality. Am I psychopathic murderer? Of course not. But do I share Viola’s desire for control over those I care about? Possibly. I’d never act on this desire, of course, but inaction won’t erase the ignoble trait from my psyche.

 

Perhaps my need to defend whatever wrongdoings my characters commit stems from my own fragile self-image; whenever I mess up, I’m never comfortable simply acknowledging my mistake. Instead, I always search out --- or contrive --- some extenuating circumstance to shoulder the blame. Did I get a bad grade on a  math test? Well, my graphing calculator obviously malfunctioned. Did I bomb play auditions? It’s obviously the director’s fault for giving us such short notice about the audition song.

 

Because  I’m too insecure to confront my failings head on, I’d much rather blame my mistakes on fabricated excuses than admit my own imperfections. So if my characters reflect aspects of my personality --- most of them far from perfect --- why wouldn’t I try to excuse said characters’  inexcusable behavior, in the same way I rationalize away my own mistakes? I wouldn’t want my worst qualities exposed without at least having the chance to defend myself; perhaps that’s why I insist on giving each antagonist that same opportunity for self-defense.

But while that Freudian gibberish may explain my aversion to undeniably evil villains, it doesn't fix the underlying problem: all immoral actions get a rationale, and all rationales get a sentimental monologue. If I want to remedy that problem, I need the guts to live with my characters’ shortcomings --- and my own.