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Here are my articles on characterization. Click on the title that interests you. If you'd like to see an article devoted to a particular aspect of characterization, please let me know by writing to tdcowden@tamicowden.com.

Characters as Actors -- Showing, not Telling, Personality

Four Steps to Characterization: Showing Personality to the Reader

Fallen Heroes

Characters as Actors -- Showing, not Telling, Personality

As writers, we tend to know our characters very well. After all, we live with these people. But sometimes our readers don’t "get" our characters. We can, of course, tell ourselves that we write for a much more discerning crowd than we’ve ever actually found. Or, we can roll up our sleeves and get back to the characterization drawing board. Mine have been rolled up so often, they have permanent creases.

A while back, I was engaged in a project that required me to watch movies. Lots of movies. Hundreds and hundreds of movies. I was watching to learn the archetypes of the characters conveyed in the films. I leaned a lot.

But not just about archetypes. I learned about how character is conveyed to an audience. Actors do a lot more than recite the words written for them. They bring the personalities imagined by the screenwriter to a living breathing form. They show how the character walks, talks, dresses, lives, interacts with others. Absent some form of narration – rather rare in film, they never rely on introspection.

Sounds like the opposite of what we do, huh? So often, we convey personality by telling the reader exactly what the character thinks.

Uh, oh. What’s wrong with that word picture. Exactly! It is not a word picture. When we tell the reader the character is angry, or happy, or whatever, we are doing just that. Telling. Not showing.

Fortunately, there is a solution. Let your characters do what the actors do – show personality. How? In exactly the same way as in a film. Bear with me – I am serious. Let me tell you what I mean.

Think about your favorite actors, and their different roles. They don’t always look the same, do they? Actors change their appearance to portray characters – they gain or lose weight, dye, cut or shave their hair, grow or shave facial hair, wear pads in their cheeks or under their clothing, which clothing is likely very different from what the actor wears at home.

Why do actors do this? Because physical appearance conveys personality. Think of Michael Douglas in Romancing the Stone. Open collared shirts, tight jeans, boots, a machete hanging down his back, longish hair. Now, think of Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction. Pressed shirts and slacks, loafers, briefcase, neatly trimmed hair. Jack Colton’s facial features may look a lot like Dan Gallagher’s, but there is no mistaking these men.

So – treat your characters like a paper doll and dress them up in different outfits. Does your hero wear leather pants and a jacket, chinos and polo shirt, jeans and a T-shirt? Are the jeans ironed? Does you heroine wear a skirt cut to here, or the prim blouse with an Oxford collar. Does the conservative exterior hide risqué underwear? Does the low-cut blouse cover plain white cotton underthings?

Now that you have looks, think about that actual acting – actors convey character with facial expressions, posture, body language, and speech. Just the way a character moves across the screen says a lot about what’s in his or her head. In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman played a loose limbed, verbally agile actor (type casting!). Words rolled off his tongue, and he was in complete control of his body. But in Rain Man, Hoffman spoke in a clipped monotone, and held himself stiffly, as though warding off stimuli from the environment around him (as autistic persons often need to do). Or watch The Dirty Dozen – there’s a quiz. What impression do you get from body language of the character of Arthur Maggot – played by Telly Savalas? Does he ever become a member of this team?

As a writer, you can give your characters this same ability to convey their relationship with the world around them. Let the reader know if your character trips and falls, or walks gracefully over obstacles. Show expressions, posture and gestures. Let your character convey his or her feelings.

The environment in which a character lives tells a lot, too. If you are old enough to remember the TV show The Odd Couple, think about the differences in the two men’s bedrooms. You wouldn’t have to know anything else about the show – when you saw those two rooms, you knew these men. For the younger set, think of how Dharma has decorated the apartment she shares with her more uptight husband. That apartment tells worlds about her.

Show the reader the world your character inhabits – and how he or she has made that world comfortable – or not.

What ever is shown on a screen can be written on the page. Next time you watch a move – any movie - take note of the visual and auditory cues you get to help you understand the characters. Add those cues to your writing, and you’ll be showing, not telling.

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Four Steps to Characterization: Showing Personality to the Reader

Character is plot, or so I’ve heard. And I’ve also heard tell of many ways to discover the nature of your character’s … well … character. Journals, charts, lists, diaries, resumes, profiles and so on – all are meant to help the writer discover the hidden emotional depths of your creations. What I don’t seem to hear too much about is how the writer can convey personality to the reader. Obviously you can’t paperclip that photo of a model you looks like your heroine to your manuscript. It won’t help to staple the hero’s journal, either.

But there are ways to show the reader who your characters are. Four ways, in fact!

First, physical description. This one is basic to most folks. You might have a passage like the following:

Helen Heroine took one look at Hank Hero’s 6 feet 2 inches, and sent a thankful prayer to heaven. He was surely God’s gift to women. Blond hair and blue eyes, and a cute little dimple on the left side when he smiled with those perfect white teeth. She really liked his blue jeans and cowboy boots, too. What a guy!

There, we know a lot about Hank. Now take out your crayons and draw a picture of him. What? You can’t? Whaddaya mean? I told you all about him. He’s a gorgeous cowboy. Wait – is he a toothpaste model? Maybe the boy next door? Okay, okay. How about this, then:

Helen Heroine took one look at Hank Hero, and sent a thankful prayer to heaven. He was surely God’s gift to women. In its current tousled state, his wavy blond hair cried for a woman’s hand – her hand – to smooth it back into place. His hard day of riding showed in the careful way he eased his long frame into the chair. He hiked first one jean clad leg, and then the other up so his feet rested on wooden chair opposite his own seat.. She didn’t mind the caked mud flaking off his boots on to her good chair. After all, despite his evident weariness, Hank managed to cast that sexy grin of his her way. One wink of a deep blue eye, and she knew she’d bring him anything he wanted. Beer. Whiskey. Herself.

Ok, we still know Hank is tall, blond and blue eyed, and wears jeans and boots. But we know a bit more, too. He has a bit boyishness about him. We know he is a cowboy, or at least, is being one today. We know he manages to maintain a flirtatious manner even when very tired. We know he is not a formal type – he puts his feet on furniture that does not belong to him and he winks at women. He makes himself comfortable in his surroundings. My guess is old Hank here is a CHARMER.

Next, there is introspection. This method of conveying characterization, along with physical description, is the most commonly employed by writers.

Hank sighed. It had been hard day on the trail. Now he wanted to kick back and relax. He just couldn’t face any more work today. He’d rather stay here at the bar with Helen Heroine.

Sure, okay. Hank is a one tired cowboy, putting off a bit of work. But we can do more.

Hank sighed, letting the fatigue drain out of him. The day on the trail had been hard, but now it was time to kick back and relax. Thoughts of the past month’s paperwork waiting for him back at the ranch intruded, but he pushed them away. He’d put in a day’s labor, after all. He was entitled to a bit of fun now. And by gosh, Helen Heroine was just the bit of fun he had in mind.

Now, don’t we have a clearer picture of Hank than just a tired cowboy putting off chores? Don’t we get a sense of someone who ALWAYS put off those chores? And, uh, ge, this ranching stuff isn’t exactly a labor of love with him, is it? Combined with a bit of physical description, most writers use internal thoughts to convey characterization.

Now let’s get into a couple of more complex ways of showing characterization. How about the words and deeds of the character? Sure, we can stage manage like so:

Hank grabbed the bottle of beer Helen brought and drank it. Then he pulled Helen into his lap. Giving her a big kiss, he said, "You’re the greatest, hon."

But don’t we get a better idea of Hank’s character with this:

Hank swooped up the bottle of imported beer Helen brought him and drained it. Wiping his lips with the bar napkin, he jumped up and caught her around the waist. A quick two-step around the table, brought him neatly back to his own chair. He sprawled onto it, pulling her into his lap. A quick buss on her lips led to a sweet nuzzle of her ear lobe. His breath was warm on her cheek as he whispered, "You’re the greatest, hon."

Oh, yeah. Definitely a CHARMER!

Now, the fourth step for characterization - attitudes of other characters. Yep. You can show character through the words and action of other characters. In fact, I’ve already done it in my very first examples above, because we know that Helen thinks Hank is God’s gift to women – the sort of fellow a woman would actually be thankful to know. But, well, that was sort of telling, not showing, huh? So how about this:

"Oh, for Pete’s sake, Helen. Are you gonna let that no-count cowboy sweet talk you into givin’s him drinks on the house again? Don’t you ever learn, girl?" Harriet shook her head over her daughter’s foolishness.

Well, by golly, that was a twofer, wasn’t it. A few words from Helen’s mother, and we know a bit about both Hank and Helen.

The most important to remember about these four steps is that you should use all of them – often in the same paragraphs; even in the same lines.

And remember, since character IS story – never stop revealing it. Conveying character isn’t just a chore for Chapter One. You should keep unveiling your character right up until "The End."

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Fallen Heroes

Villains are bad people. Evil incarnate. They do bad things for no other reason than to do bad things. They have no redeeming values, and were pretty much put on earth (or in the story, anyway) solely to plague the heroic characters.

Do you believe that? More to the point, does a villain like that ring true when you come across one in a book or a movie?

Well, maybe. The truth is, there are some antagonists who are somewhat like this. When the “villain” of the piece is a hurricane or tornado, or some similar mindless force of nature, a writer can get away with a total lack of redeeming qualities. A tornado may serve some purpose in the grand scheme of the ecosystem, but when the hero and heroine are battening down the hatches, I can’t think of what that purpose may be.

But if the villain is a living, breathing person, I want to know the reasons he or she does the things she does. Why? Well, if I don’t understand the villain’s motivation, I don’t really know what the hero and heroine are facing.

No truly believable villain believes her actions are WRONG. To the villain, the hero or heroine are the bad guys – they keep the villain from his goal.

A villain should be the hero of his own story. (Repeat that about fifty times!) And any character important enough to have a story -- even if THIS is not the story – should be well motivated, with clear goals.

So how do you do that? Well, I happen to be a fan of archetypes, and guess what? There are archetypes for villains, too. In fact, villains can be viewed as fallen heroes. Once you realize that villains are also heroes, just of different stories, it becomes pretty obvious that the same archetypes that exist for heroic characters also work for villains. With a bit of tweaking.

For example, let’s take the type of archetypal hero everyone recognizes. The sort of character that comes to mind with the very word “hero.” Luke Skywalker, of Star Wars fame, is a member of the WARRIOR archetypal family. Honor and duty are codes he lives by. He serves the greater good, with little thought to personal risk. His light saber is put to good use, saving the galaxy from the evil empire.

Can we imagine a WARRIOR who does not serve the greater good? One, who, oh, for lack of a better term, has been seduced by the dark side of the force? Oh, yeah! Remember Luke’s daddy? The sweet heroic little Anekin Skywalker, a WARRIOR in preadolescence, grows up to be Darth Vader. A hero who became a villain.

Why? Well, we can only speculate at this point, because we don’t have this entire story yet, but my guess is that Anekin will become convinced that, in fact, he DOES serve the greater good by serving the emperor. Being a slave who wins his freedom, Anakin has a thing about slavery. Now, did we hear about any slaves in the Empire in Episodes IV-VI? I don’t remember any. Does Anakin join with the dark forces because his goal was to end slavery? Maybe.

But that why isn’t even that important, at least not for Episodes IV-VI, because Darth Vader’s motivations and goals came across very clearly in those movies. He served his Empire. Like any WARRIOR, he did his duty, with little thought to personal risk. He was a soldier, a true believer in the Imperial cause, and he puts his light saber to use defending the empire against the Rebel Alliance. We, the audience, knew it. We understood him, just as we understood Luke, and accepted him as an adversary worthy of the hero of that trilogy. To succeed, Luke would have to face off against someone every bit as devoted to service and determined to protect his favored government as Luke himself. The audience watched with bated breath. Over and over again.

For every archetypal hero or heroine, there is a corresponding villain. Enjoy a bossy character like Murphy Brown? Think of Lady MacBeth. Like Sherlock Holmes? Does Hannibal Lector strike a chord? (Or, for that matter, Professor Moriarity!). Crusading heroines like Buffy or Xena are counterbalanced by villains like Medea, who killed her own children for revenge against her straying husband. And so on, and so on.

But just because every heroic archetype has a dark side, do not make the mistake of thinking that great heroic characters must always overcome a villain of the same type. Giving your heroes and villains similar perspectives and personalities can be very effective, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle discovered, but having their world views be very different can also make for great drama. Consider 2000’s best picture, Gladiator. Maximus is a Warrior, of course, but Commidus is the disfavored son -- a BAD BOY villain. They see the world very differently, but their clash is every bit as exciting as that of Luke and Darth.

What matters is that the audience know just how serious the villain is about opposing the hero. Convince your readers that the villain has reasons – important, honestly held, perfectly sincere reasons - to put obstacles in your protagonists’ paths, and your audience will be that much more impressed by your heroes’ ultimate success.

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