Critique Technique, part 10: Poor Characterization

Whoa, it’s been way too long since I’ve posted anything. I could claim health issues and plumbing issues as reasons—both would be true—but both would be excuses, too. The real reason is this topic is one I’m uneasy writing about: characterization is the part of writing I think I have the most trouble with. You’d think that since writing these posts is also a form of self-teaching, I’d want to address this subject, but noooooo…

Time to quit stalling. Before I go on, though, a DISCLAIMER: what follows just scratches the surface of characterization. People have written many books on creating believable characters, and I’m smart enough to know I can’t cover everything they do in one post, or even a series of them.

With that in mind, what do I mean by poor characterization? What makes it poor, and how can you as a reviewer spot it, describe it, and offer help for it to the “guilty” writer?

We readers want the characters of the pieces we read to be:

  • Believable. They can be really bad (a Hannibal Lecter, for example) or really good, but they can’t be so intensely, unremittingly, uniformly bad or good that we lose faith in them. That means they have to also be
  • Interesting. Or quirky. Or flawed. In other words, they have to have some trait that lies outside the norm of the rest of their behavior and yet isn’t so outré that it’s unbelievable. The author has to make sure we understand why the character has that trait, even if the character herself does not. Good or bad, we also want characters to be
  • Redeemable: they have the chance and the ability to overcome their flaws. Whether they take that opportunity, and whether they succeed or fail, are other matters. Indeed, how they respond when the opportunity—or demand—presents itself can be very interesting, even the core of the story, but the ability needs to be there. It also helps if the characters are
  • Committed to something. It doesn’t matter so much if that commitment is to understanding their mother, or killing her, but the presence and the intensity of that commitment, that passion, make the character more interesting. Commitment creates the opportunity for conflict when there’s someone else with a different commitment: the mother, say, who doesn’t want to be “understood,” or who wants to live. The conflict can be internal, too, which makes the character more interesting. Commitment also means characters will be
  • Active. We want characters who DO things, not just sit around contemplating their navels, their troubles, their relationships, or their feelings. Passive characters are, for the most part, boring. There are exceptions, like Bartleby of Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, whose aggression is passive, but nonetheless real. Speaking of feelings, we want characters to
  • Feel. Not so much that we’re drowned in their emotions, but not so little that they become robots, either. Even Star Trek’s Vulcans had feelings, and not just when “The Seven Year Itch” hit them. They had to, or we wouldn’t have been able to relate to them. Lastly, we want characters to be
  • Distinct. Many of the things I’ve listed above serve to make each character different from all the others in a piece. At least, they’d darn well better. As I wrote last time, conflict is a primary requirement of a story, and differences between characters is something that creates conflict. Can you imagine a story in which every character was identical in every respect? Neither can I.

In other words, then, we want characters to be people. Wow, what a concept! Piece of cake, right? Not so much. At least, not for me. Maybe not for you.

So what makes for poor characterization? NOT having the qualities listed above is part of it, or not having enough of them, but poor characterization can also be revealed by having too much of some trait. Problems will arise if a character is:

  • Too quirky or flawed. Then the quirk or flaw becomes a distraction, or disrupts the story, in which case, it’s worth asking what the story’s really about. Also, if a character is
  • Too committed to something, they become a one-trick pony, which makes them boring, annoying, tiresome, uninteresting. The same is true if they’re
  • Hyperactive or melodramatic. The hyperactive character wears the reader out while showing no depth. In a later post I’ll write about story pace, but there’s a “pace” for a character, too, and someone who’s “on” all the time doesn’t demonstrate the variety of character pace that makes them interesting. Similarly, melodrama provides no change of pace. A character who’s always crying, shouting, ranting, raging, even being violent also becomes boring, or worse. High emotion is fine in the proper time and situation but a character who has no other kind of response will drive readers away. By the same token, the character who
  • Lacks any emotion will be just as uninteresting. This is true whether they’re the clichéd cold-blooded killer or the dude who’s too cool for everyone and everything else. There are exceptions, of course. Bartleby is about as emotionless as you can get, but Melville uses that lack of emotion as the perfect reflector for the first-person narrator’s emotions, bouncing them back without being affected by them, thus creating the story’s conflict.

To summarize, then, a well-drawn character has a balanced complexity: they’re a mixture of many traits. Not so many as to be a confused muddle but not so few as to be a cardboard cut-out. Some traits will be more prominent than others, and different traits will be more prominent at different times. Some traits will define the character’s core, others will just decorate their surface. For the story’s protagonist, those core characteristics should be the ones at greatest risk.

Here are some questions for you to ask about the characters as you review a piece:

  • Do I see enough different traits in the character to make him interesting? Or are there so many traits that I don’t know who he really is?
  • Are her responses to the situations she finds herself in appropriate to the story? (Responding inappropriately can be a legitimate character trait.)
  • Does he have flaws but also the potential to be redeemed from them?
  • Is she committed to something? Is she too committed to something?
  • Does he show a range of emotions that is too wide, too narrow, or appropriate?
  • And the ultimate questions: do I believe her and believe in her? Do I want to know more about her?

What questions to do you ask yourself when evaluating a story’s characters?

 

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