the tamago report

Eggs benedictated

Tag: characterisation

The trouble with characterisation

by MDY

We’re all victims of physiognomy. I tend to write against the outward grain, but not exclusively so. You don’t usually read about vertically-challenged samurai, or goat-herds with spectacles and tinea. More often than not, my characters exist solely as brief outlines, dappled with a hint of blue eyes or the shadow of an elevated cheekbone. From my limited knowledge, most people build up a mental picture of the characters when they read, hence the outcry when a novel is rendered in 35mm and the actors reify interior monologue into flesh and bone. I rarely “see” my characters when reading, or writing. Far more important to hear what they’re saying to me than to know if their eyes are blue or brown. My mother always said that it’s what’s inside that counts. You don’t need contact lenses if you only exist on page.

Everyone contradicts their selves. If you’re writing cardboard cut-outs, you’re working in the wrong medium. If life is like a box of chocolates, then people (and people-as-animals, or people-as-foliage, or people-as-computers) are like those amusements at fairs where you can pop your face into an oval opening and have eggs thrown at you. The physical shape may look the same, but there’s a different personality inhabiting it at every moment. I prefer chocolates, but they’re only sweet some of the time. That’s not to say that you should write your characters bipolar, but consider this: how many faces do you put on in a single day?

Try not to project. When I was younger, I used to imprint the people I’d read onto the people I’d met, and then end up bitterly disappointed when they didn’t turn out to be superheroes or dragons-in-disguise. I think my Megatron and Bumblebee toys were my best friends until at least my 7th birthday. In the first three years of school, I made up an imaginary friend based on Tintin who would accompany me everywhere, simply because real people seemed a bit passé in general. I was always suspicious of journalism because it turns real people into characters, whereas fiction turns characters into real people. To my flesh-and-blood friends: if I call you Ishmael, or Steven Stills, forgive me. There’s a saying about old habits and the end of the world.


Writing from experience

by MDY

They say write what you know. When I first started with short stories, I used to structure them around swathes of luxurious dialogue in which my characters would ponder the quandaries of war, God, and double dates. These weren’t very good, because I didn’t actually know how to talk a lot. So I moved on to writing stories where the characters wouldn’t speak at all, and those were better. Then I began writing in the first person because I do a lot of thinking, but without any increase in dialogue because I still don’t like talking. The only person I feel truly comfortable talking to is myself. Blogs are surprisingly well-suited for interior monologue.

They say write what you don’t know. When I was in high school, all my protagonists were intellectual-leaning teenage boys who were sweet on unattainably beautiful women and would often partake in swathes of luxurious dialogue about war, God, and double dates. But that was boring, so I moved on to cybernetic assassins, telepathic trees, and little girls who wanted to be chefs. For a long time all my protagonists were male, until I realised my understanding of men was about as poor as that of (invariably unattainably beautiful) women. So I started writing about animals. Sometimes knowing is half the battle, but it may not be the winning side.

I say write what you want to know. My illustrator wants to know more about learning to teach, and teaching to learn. One of my friends writes about God, and fashion, because she wants to understand both better (though her allegiances, like mine, fall squarely on one side). I write about writing. Words are thoughts, made close-to-real. They give us something to hold onto, and something to build from. You don’t have to know what you write, but it helps knowing what you’re writing for.

The Novel Question

by MDY

It’s character-building, but not like Lego. Things fall apart, especially when you’ve underestimated the gravitational field needed by your core premise. The worst stage is not the start; it’s that moment some 23 516 words in when you realise the only way for your plot to go is down. Do you abandon everything, or push on despite knowing that the best possible outcome is a chimera bedecked with a cowboy’s Stetson and the war-painted sinews of an Amazon? Not everyone lives with a book inside of them, and your career prospects are probably better doing a thesis. Bifurcation is only humorous with snap-to-fit parts.

The answer is you relinquish control. The difference between being a kid and writing is that in the play-pen, figures can’t assemble themselves. At some point, I realised my characters were talking back to me. “There is simply no way I am going to do that,” they would accost me; “do you even know me?” If I tried to force them my will, they’d just sneer (or in one case, throw a tampon) at me and continue acting unaccordingly. After a while, I realised they were right. Sometimes they even question their fundamental state of being. “Less Stetson, more decapitation.” “You should give me longer branches.” “I shall sniff this tampon!” If I’m the divinity that shapes their ends, then God help us all. Generally, things tend to work out just as they should.

Practical lessons are the most effective. My writing is particularly minimalist because I like to give my characters their privacy. Sometimes the most important bit has to come after the ending, which is when you do a Tolstoy and write short stories instead. Aiming for realism in a novel is the best way to bore yourself and your characters. I don’t have many cuts in my stories because home-movies make me vertiginous, but when I do they’re usually decapitations. Let your characters do what they want and don’t expect them to be perfect, because are you? Clean bifurcation is only natural to zygotes and stock options. Not everyone lives inside a book, but you can look after the ones who do.