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Monday, October 28, 2019

Never Confuse Characterization for Character



Lately I've been revisiting Story by Robert McKee, a famous book on the craft of storytelling. It can be pretty intense and heavy at times, so it's not something I would recommend for beginners. In fact, the first time I read it, a lot of it was so deep and new that it went over my head. It's been interesting reading it again. Now, parts seem to be validating my ideas, rather than turning and twisting them.

One thing in particular stuck out to me this last week: character vs. characterization.

Regularly, I see writers hyperfocused on characterization.

Characterization is all the surface or near-surface stuff: voice, demeanor, likes and dislikes, hair and eye color, clothes, habits, etc.

Honestly, I personally consider these things to be part of character, but for the sake of this post, we are going to look at them as two different things, to communicate specific ideas.

Characterization can be really important and really effective. Give us the right voice, mannerisms, and appearance, and we can instantly be drawn to someone. Jack Sparrow is a good example. Johnny Depp combined Pepe le Pew with Keith Richards to come up with a unique, iconic characterization. In fact, Depp is often very good with characterization. A lot of actors have the same demeanor for all of their characters (I'm trying so hard to not name anyone in particular right now), but Depp's Jack Sparrow, Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka, Grindelwald, Mort Rainey, etc. all have unique characterizations.

You are very familiar with characterization. All over online you can find long questionnaires to fill out to get to know your protagonist (or any other character). Back in the day, I would fill these out because they were fun (and they are, and that's okay!), but I often found that despite how personal the questions could get (i.e. "What is his/her greatest fear?"), I wasn't quite satisfied with the person on the page, not to mention that a lot of the stuff I ended up brainstorming seemed irrelevant to the story. And in some cases, I had to change what I'd filled out to write a better story "for some reason."



I've actually heard/read a few writers get on the character vs. characterization bandwagon and go on to kind of . . . knock down characterization. I don't agree with that. I strongly believe in the power of rich characterization. And I have zero problems if you want to be like Johnny Depp and give each main character a super unique demeanor. In fact, as long as it doesn't get too outlandish for your world, I enjoy that and think it is a good idea.

After all, if Jack Sparrow had a demeanor like the Mad Hatter, Pirates would be totally different.

But here is the problem that past me, and I see a lot of writers run into, characterization is not the sum of character. You might be filling out questionnaire after questionnaire, trying to find The Thing™️, but it's not coming together, because you only know about characterization.

Characterization is part of a character, but it isn't fully "character." When it gets down to it, when you want to get really, really deep, characterization isn't going to get you there.

As J.K. Rowling famously wrote, it's our choices that determine who we are.


You can be the gothiest goth kid, or the preppiest prep kid, but who you truly are is what you choose to do, and perhaps, I would probably add, why you choose to do it. When encountering a stray dog, do you kick it away or give it some food? You can cut out all the external stuff; you can cut out the hairstyle, the age, the clothes, the likes and dislikes, and at the heart of it, is choices.

But it's not just any choice.

As Robert McKee and others have stated, to get into that inner gem of character, it's the choices the character makes when there are significant stakes. If a character chooses vanilla ice cream over chocolate, that doesn't really tell me a lot, unless I want to read symbolism into it (which could be there).

Maybe your protagonist tells the truth to his parents about putting a frog in his sister's bed. Does that really matter if there are no potential consequences involved? Telling the truth when there are no dire consequences is easy. Telling the truth when there are important things at stake is harder. What if telling the truth meant he would be grounded and could not participate in a talent show he's been practicing for, for months? There is prize money involved, and he was hoping to use that money to buy a chemistry set. Chemistry is his passion and he wants be a world-renowned chemist someday. Which is more important to him? A potential chemistry set or telling the truth?

This can be a great way to add depth. Well, it is depth. Especially if their characterization seems to be at odds with who they truly are. A vampire who craves human blood but chooses not to drink it is interesting. A prince who'd rather be a beach bum is interesting. The bully who, when it gets down to it, sticks up for an enemy is interesting. It makes them more complex. It draws us in so we want to know more. Why doesn't this vampire drink human blood? Why doesn't this prince want to be a king? Why did this bully stick up for someone? The answers to those questions makes them complex.



We all have layers after all. And we all have boundaries. I almost never lie. But if I was stuck between telling the truth or lying to save a loved one's life, well, I'd pick the latter. But if I picked the former, that would say a lot about me as well.

Some writers throw in contradictions to create character depth (a vampire who refuses to drink human blood), which works, but if it's a main character, and I never get an idea or hint of the "why," I sometimes find myself feeling . . . cheated. Like it was just thrown in (and maybe it was). I also then get stuck, fixated on the why that I never get, so it's distracting. I don't know that we always need to explore the why, but I would say for main characters, it's almost always more effective, more powerful, more meaningful, to address the why, to some extent. Unless, of course, the reason is ridiculous, in which case, maybe you need to reevaluate that and come up with something better.

There is an important part to all of this, which is that we need to see your character making significant choices, which means they must be placed in situations where they can make decisions. If you don't give your character opportunities to make significant decisions, it's probably going to be a problem. This is another reason why people ask for "active" protagonists. They must want something and make choices with stakes attached.

Don't be afraid to make your protagonist's true self a bit negative or flawed--after all, they need to grow during the story (usually). Maybe near the beginning of the story, you show your character being selfish, but at the end, we see he is willing to sacrifice his life, literally or figuratively. This is called character arc.


The way your character changes through the course of the story can also bring more "character" to him or her than characterization can alone. If we have a character that starts as a villain, but ends up being a good guy by the end, well, that's interesting and complex, and the transformation demands depth to be satisfying. This can all get more complicated real fast, because there are degrees and variations, and I don't want to muddy the water quite yet.

But if you are only trying to find character by filling out endless characterization questionnaires, you might never write a fully formed, deep, complex character. Instead, consider choices, contradictions, and arcs.


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