Characterization - The Inner Life

Posted by Noah Lukeman on

I would never write about someone who is not at the end of his rope.
--Stanley Elkin

Many writers mistake the outer life of a character for the inner life, assume that by offering a physical description and a few surface details, they have created a character. In actuality, the creating is just beginning. In real life it might suffice to know very little about someone else. Take, for instance, a company. A company can only ask a potential employee so much--if they probe into his sexual preferences or religious beliefs, they could get sued. If they probe deeper, into his superstitions or compulsions, they would be considered crazy. The public has made it clear that anything beyond a person's surface information must be kept private.

But paradoxically, when the public picks up a book, this is precisely the information they demand to know. Works of fiction can offer an intimacy that real life cannot, and it is your job to foster this intimacy, to move beyond a character's physical traits and deep into the depths of who he is. A writer, unlike a company, has no limitations. You have the depths of your character's psyche before you, and it is your job to plumb them. Unfortunately, many writers don't. Surface characterization, or the use of the characters merely as a vehicle for telling the story, is relied upon too often; in such cases, characterization often stops with little more than a basic, physical description, and the character's dialogue and actions will generally be convenient for the scene at hand.

Authentic characters will have such a rich life of their own that you'll often find them thwarting your plans; once they are real, living people, they act like real, living people: whimsically and unpredictably. This is where you enter the hazy territory of characters influencing--even defining--the story. If you keep an open mind and stay true to them, they will take over, scene after scene, and tell you how the action should be executed. This might mean throwing out much of your original plotting; it will certainly mean your dropping your writer's ego; and none of it will be remotely possible unless you know, incontrovertibly, every aspect of your character's inner life.

More important than the superficial details of what this person does or where he went to school is the ultimate question of who he is, a question rarely asked in society today. In attempting to discover this, consider the following:

Heroes. When we are young, we have heroes. But as we age, as figures loom less large in our consciousness and we become more cynical about the creation of image, we are less quick to choose and maintain role models for ourselves. If forced, most of us will conveniently choose someone who is dead. Choose people who are alive. Who are your character's heroes? If hero is too strong a word, think role model; if this is too strong, think someone they look up to. We are all a mixed bag, and you might choose someone who is admirable in one area even if he is despicable in another. Do not expect all things from all people. They could be actors, musicians, humanitarians, politicians, soldiers, businessmen, mothers... . What does his choice (or refusal to choose) say about him? About what he values in life? What steps is your character taking to follow in the same path? Why or why not?

Conversational focus. You can learn a tremendous amount about a person simply by observing what they choose to talk about. They might say they are merely rehashing the day's news when telling you a story about a local homicide, but the fact remains that they have chosen to report a morbid topic. More tellingly, if you spend enough time with a person, you'll find there is a recurring pattern to their conversational choices: they will often harp on the same themes, whether it is money, real estate, deaths, marriages or child care. The funnies or the obituaries. The latest technology or the 13th century. Fashion or fly fishing or the stock market. Conversation reflects what's on the mind. Indeed, people do our jobs for us--they reveal themselves, if only we would listen. The problem is, we rarely listen carefully enough.

Allocation of Time. Go through a weekday with him. A weekend. How does he spend his day? How much time is spent on what activities? How much of it is intellectual? Athletic? Mindless entertainment? Does he read Dostoyevsky in his free time or play Nintendo? Does he write poetry, or frequent bars? Or both? Does he spend time with his kids, or take care of his parents? Does he spend time with his girlfriend, or spend time with his dog? Does he attend church twice a day, or frequent sex shows? Or both? If he were to go on vacation, what would he do? Would he be restless, bored in two hours? Or would he be content to sit and read and think for days on end?

Timeline. Does your character spend most of his time reminiscing? Remembering old grudges? Thinking of an ex-partner? A deceased loved one? Regretting opportunities missed? Or is he always anticipating? Does he plan his life 10 years in advance? Have a retirement fund setup at age 20? Quietly bide his time, content to dream of a future promotion? Or does he live only for today? Refuse to think back, refuse to plan? You can also play against the grain. Is he a teenager who is always talking about his memories? An old man who is always thinking of the future?


Evolution. Keep in mind that, even if you know your character, you only know who he is at this moment. People change--indeed, the very point of most works is to show such a change. So you will have to check in with your character at different points in your work (especially if there a passage of time) and ask if all of this still applies. For instance, your character's goals will be different at 16 then at 28. Has he outgrown his ambition? Has he changed hobbies? Has he become charitable? Consider these three exercises:

Check in with his past. Who was he 20 years ago? 10 years ago? 5 years? 1 year? 6 months? Last week? Was he a completely different person back then? Or has he remained exactly the same? (Both are telling.) How has he changed? Has he changed for the better or for the worse? For the better in some areas, for the worse in others? How does all of this affect who he is right now?

The Catalysts. Often it is specific events--not just the passage of time--that spark fundamental changes in a character. The death of a parent. The birth of a son. Marriage. Divorce. Jail. The new job. Reflect on who your character used to be and who he is now. When you think of how he is different, also think of what events may have happened along the way to make him so. All of these catalysts hold tremendous potential for plot points. You can use them in flashback sequences, or extract them from his past and place them in the present. In either case, they are crucial to know, even if you don't use them, and can be used as rough steppingstones along the path of a character's past.

Check in with his future. What are his plans for next week? Next month? Next year? Where does he see himself in 10 years? 20? Even if he is not a planner, he still must have some vague vision of where he's heading. Is he a bachelor who'd like to marry and have kids? A prisoner who wants to go straight? A suburban man who wants more excitement? Is his focus only on material gain? Change of circumstance? Or is his focus on evolving as a person? Educating himself? Becoming more spiritual? Why does he want such a change? What does he hope to gain? How will his life change once he has it? What is he waiting for? What obstacles stand in his way? You now have a good handle not only on who he is, but who he wants to become. This, inherently, will help create tension, since there is now a mission, a path. Even if he doesn't get what he wants, this, too, will be interesting, since we get to watch the difference between his imagined life and his real one, between anticipation and reality.

Identity. If you ask your character "What do you do?" how would he respond? If you ask your character "Who are you?" how would he respond? How do the two responses differ (if at all)? How much of his identity is wrapped up in his career? How much of an identity has he carved out for himself as a human being? How self-aware is he?
All of these issues will put you on the path to harvesting the secret life that lies within your character--and might indeed teach you a few things about him you didn't already know. And as the life of the character becomes increasingly rich, you will find yourself getting hints about the direction the plot might take, ideas for scenes which might fit this character and prolong the suspense, the conflict, areas in which this character might want to journey. A richer character ultimately makes for a richer plot, and often, for true satisfaction, we need look no further than the character himself.

This article is an adaptation of Chapter 2 of Noah Lukeman's best-selling book The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life

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