There really is no secret to good characterisation, there is just sticking to the rules.
Rules? What rule?
Well, I’m glad you asked. I have 6 of them, so here they are:
Fallon’s Six Rules of Characterisation
1. Have some idea what your character looks like.
This is not to say you need a detailed description of every single character in your book. But you do need to know if he’s black, white, brindle or covered in purple polka dots. Are they tall, short, fat or skinny? A person’s physical appearance affects how they see the world and how the world perceives them. A short fat person is unlikely to be performing athletic feats of heroism without it impacting on them somehow (breathless, more prone to injury…?). People who perceive themselves as plain can sometimes resent those considered “beautiful”. Short people can resent others being tall. Tall people (particularly women) are often self-conscious about their height. These are all hang-ups that come with physical appearance and will add depth to you characters.
I play a game sometimes, called: “If this was a movie my dream cast would be…” in which I “cast” the major characters if the book like it was a movie. This gives me an idea of who I see the character as being most physically like. I may never describe them the same way in the book (although perceptive readers will find George Clooney and Brak have a great deal in common…hehehe), but in my head, I know, and that’s what really counts.
2. Know your character’s past.
Despite being largely formed by a genetic makeup, we are still creatures of our environment. If you don’t know what that environment is, then how will you know what has made your character the way they are? People are moulded by their past, either by being pulled down by it, or by rising above it. If your characters have no past, however, you have nothing to work with.
3. Know your character.
This may seem like I’m repeating myself but this is quite different to the other rules. Knowing a character means not having to think about what they’d do, because it’s self-evident. And it’s not always easy to find them. When I was writing The Immortal Prince, I was really struggling to get a grip on Arkady, until I wrote the line: “The Duchess of Lebec knew how to amputate a finger”. (It’s several chapters in… can’t remember exactly where.) At that point, she suddenly blossomed into life and I’ve never had to wonder, from them on, what she would do in any given situation.
4. When writing from a character’s particular point of view, write in their voice.
If you were writing a chapter from the point of view of a child, you probably wouldn’t write…
“Pandora cautiously lifted the lid on the valuable antique rosewood chest with it’s intricately inlaid mother-of-pearl and gilt decoupage design (which would have fetched a fortune at Christies), and gasped as all the deadly plagues of the world were unleashed upon humanity.”
Design features and consequences come from an adult’s perspective. The child would see a pretty box. You’d probably do something more like this…
“Pandora cautiously lifted the lid on the pretty box with its shiny flowers that seemed pressed into the polished wood by magic and gasped as something dreadful burst out of the box.”
The latter is a child’s perspective, and if you write your characters using language they wouldn’t use in dialogue, then it doesn’t gel. It is for this reason that I despise “head-hopping” so much. Only a very few, very-skilled practitioners (and I do not claim to be one of them) can do this and maintain characterisation without confusing the reader.
5. Evil is merely a matter of perspective.
There is a saying – one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and there was never a truer word spoken. Good people might think they’re good. But bad people, more often than not, think they’re good, too. This is the fatal mistake many would-be writers make writing their “bad guys”. They make them bad for no apparent reason. Or have them rejoice in their “badness”, and people following them (whole populations often) with no apparent goal in sight, other than world domination, just because they can. Being an Evil Overlord just because you like the idea of being an Evil Overlord only works if you’re Mike Myers and planning to clone a Mini-Me.
In my experience, all the complete assholes I’ve ever met think they’re doing the world a favour by merely breathing. And they’d be shocked, in most cases, to realise that people thought they were anything other wonderful human beings.
6. Give your characters shades of grey.
My agent brokered a stunningly fantastic advance for one of her (literary) writers last year, and the last I heard, they were into seven figures. (Yes, that’s over a million dollars.) The reason? It’s because, as one enthusiastic publisher gushed, “the characters have so many shades of grey”.
To give you an example of what I mean, let me paraphrase the story of The Good Samaritan for a moment.
• A good character without shading would stop and help the wounded man lying on the road, for no other reason than he is good and it’s the right thing to do.
• An evil character without shading would not stop to help the wounded man lying on the road, for no other reason than he is evil and it’s the wrong thing to do, although he may stop and spare the poor dying mugging victim a muwahahaha for dramatic effect, before moving on to other random acts of violence and mayhem.
• A fully realised character will see the wounded man, turn away because he doesn’t want to get involved, be swamped with guilt a few steps further on and go back to aid him, resent the poor victim for causing him trouble, even while giving him the shirt off his back, which he then has to explain to his wife when he gets home that night.
It’s not the best example, granted, but you get the idea. Heroes are often accidental. In fact, there’s an argument that only a fearful man can be a hero. If you’re not afraid of anything, what is there to overcome? Courage is doing something in spite of your fears, not blazing ahead fearlessly because you’re too stupid to know the danger.
Jennifer Fallon is the author of four fantasy series, the most recent being the Tide Lords quartet. The Chaos Crystal, book four of the Tide Lords series, came out this month and is available across all good Australian book shops.
Filed under: Fallon Friday, Jennifer Fallon, on writing | Tagged: Arkady, casting characters, Characterisation, fallon friday, Jennifer Fallon, knowing your characters, the chaos crystal, The Good Samaritan, The Immortal Prince, writing characters | Leave a comment »