the quandary of characterization

I swear to the stars, Mr. Sheh is the greatest Creative Writing teacher ever. This is my second year in his class (hopefully, I’ll also be in his English class next year) and his current fancy is screenwriting. We recently completed outlines for 10-page-long screenplays with plans to continue work on them over the next few weeks.

I’m turning Bright Outside–or, at least, the idea I had for the opening scene–into a short that could potentially serve as the opening sequence to a feature-length film. I’m about to start work on the treatment for it. Meanwhile, my assignment is to write something outside of the script that characterizes the main character. (The example was the transcript of the dating profile video that incited the date that was the plot of Mr. Sheh’s screenplay.)

Wow. This is harder than it sounds, to be completely honest, because though I thought I knew everything about Zachery, I don’t. What do I write? One of his query letters? A blog post? His self-written author blurb from his 95,000 word manuscript? How the fuck do you characterize a character outside of their novel?!

I’m not asking you. I’m actually going to attempt to answer this apparently unsolvable question.

So who the hell is Zachery Fleming, anyway? 

Yes, writers. You must ask yourself who your main character is. Not just, “oh, he’s a novelist” or “oh, he never dream” but who he is. Consider what made him that way. If he lives alone in the farmhouse his great-greats build, then why don’t his parents live there? Think about who they are and what happened to them in high school, college (if they went to either), in their youth. How were their parents raised and how did that affect them?

Zachery lives alone in the house because his father moved into a retirement community shortly after Zachery’s mother died. He was a loner in high school, dropped out of community college to work on his novel. He was raised by fiercely individual parents who, though they fought often, truly loved each other. His father was raised by a more traditional family–Church every Sunday, strict bedtimes, etc.–which lead him to rebel and be a modern man. Conversely, Zachery’s mother mostly raised herself because her divorced parents were alcoholics.

Has he changed over the years? How has he changed since last year? Five years ago? Ten? 

Once you have all of that information above hammered out, think about your character’s path of development. Just like you could diagram your character’s development through a story, diagram it for this character’s past. Was he an atheist alcoholic when he was 21, but at 30 he’s a sober priest? Was he a doormat as a teenager and now tries to control every aspect of his life?

Zachery was shy throughout high school, which made him incredibly unhappy. He tried to compensate by partying his way through his year and a half of college. But, alone in his farmhouse at 24, Zachery takes solace in his isolation.

How does he see himself? 

Going along from the character’s development, think about how that might affect their self-esteem and self-image. Does the former doormat have an incredibly low self-esteem that they cover up by acting arrogant in public? How would that sober priest describe himself in the About the Author flap inside his book about theology and God’s saving grace?

Zachery may have a decent self-image, but his self-esteem is pretty low. He thinks he’s a good guy, but he doesn’t think he’s all that special, worth notice, or in any way notable.

Now tie it all up with his interests to characterize him!

Take everything you learned about your character in the above points and put it together. Can you see how Zachery came to have low self-esteem? Can you see how the ex-doormat became a control freak, and the particular aspects he controls more than anything else (think relationships)? And, just like the sober priest example, figure out how you could tie their interests to their characterization. Zachery’s a novelist–so I could write one of his query letters or a post from his blog. The priest is interested in God and believes in the Saviour, so he writes a book about his beliefs and expresses his self-image in his About the Author blurb.

I hope that, even if this post didn’t help you, it sparked some sort of idea about characterization. Take the little aspects (his favorite toy as a kid was a firetruck) and make them into big personality traits (his first novel was about firefighters).

-Jimmy

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