Monday, April 11, 2011


by Gina Sestak

When we talk about characterization, we often seem to focus on creating a believable fictional person.  We try to imagine a convincing backstory, if only for our own purposes.  We ponder the idiosyncrasies.  What color is his hair?  How tall is she?  Where was he born?  What's her favorite tv show?  Does he like lilacs?   Will she ever jump out of a plane?  How do we convey this information to a reader without turning the book into a laundry list of traits?

Even assuming we succeed in creating a compelling character, this approach leaves out an important part of the equation.  No one exists in a vacuum, not even fictional people.  They come most alive when interacting with each other.   In order to create compelling characters, we need to come up with equally compelling relationships.

So, there it is.  One more thing to worry about in a universe of "what to keep in mind while writing novels."

We've all been told most stories need a certain set of characters: a protagonist who's central to the action, a nemesis for challenge, a buddy to bounce things off of, a wise mentor, a romantic interest.   The question is, how do we establish compelling relationships between these folks?  Do they have to fall in love?  Or hate?  Can they just co-exist without becoming boring?

The subject came up in a critique group meeting last Saturday, when we were discussing movies.  I mentioned how much I loathe Two For The Road, a 1967 film starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney.  I never felt anything for the two main characters, I think because they never seemed really connected to each other, even though they play an ostensibly romantic couple falling in love.

If you want to see falling in love done right, here's a musical clip from a Bollywood film, Kabhi Khushie Kabhie Gham.   Believe it or not, the tagline for this film is, "It's all about loving your parents."

[I can hear the critique group members groaning already.  "Oh, no," they're saying.  "She's been sending us Bollywood clips all weekend!  Not another one!"  Well, you can relax.  I've already sent you this one.]

I'm not saying every character in fiction has to be in love.  I'm just saying that a character should be in something.

Think about Harry Potter, for example.  One thing that propels the series is Harry's strong emotional attachments - his hatred of Snape, his idolization of Dumbledore, his love for his deceased parents and for his friends.   Can you imagine Harry without Ron or Hermione?

So, how do we go about putting relationships on paper, when we don't have actors, pyramids, or  cinematographers available?  Darned if I know.  Does anyone have any good ideas?  Please share them if you do.


Joyce Tremel said...

Good post, Gina.

The relationships between my characters never develop the way I anticipate. Antagonists refuse to be the bad guys. Love interests change because there's no chemistry between those two characters. Characters appear that I hadn't even envisioned when I started the book.

I've learned to just go with it. When I try to make the relationships into what I think they should be, it doesn't work.

PatRemick said...

For me, it's also a challenge because as you know, fiction is more difficult than real life because fiction has to make sense. I can think of more than a few relationships I have that don't make sense -- how do you incorporate THAT?

Jenna said...

I didn't know I was supposed to have all those characters! Maybe that's what's been keeping me off the NYT bestseller list...

Seriously, I'm with Joyce. I don't work it out ahead of time, and when I try, it rarely works out the way I want. I've learned to go with it, however it wants to be. My protags don't always end up with buddies to bounce things off of; sometimes it's part of the their characters to be a loner, for whatever reason. They don't always have mentors; maybe that's more common in, say, fantasy than mystery, because I don't think I've ever created one. They always have a love interest, because that's the one thing I do enjoy writing about...

Ramona said...

Gina, if you look at your questions, you'll see that you are pitching Harry against other people. How does he feel about his enemies? How does he feel toward his friends? How does he struggle against someone who is both enemy and friend?

If you place characters in compelling situations, they will need to react to one another to get through the scene. If you are a plotter, you might ask what your story needs or is missing, and which character can fill that hole. The best way to make characters real and portray their real emotions is to think of them as realistic, complex humans. If everyone in your story likes everyone else, that's not reality. Who is quick to judge? Who's the grump? Who's the doormat? Who's the mother type?

Sorry to ramble. I'm giving a workshop on characterization at Pennwriterss, so this has been brewing in my mind. Thanks for the practice!

C.L. Phillips said...

I love these questions and answers. Much to consider in my new project. Thanks for tickling the muse.

Gina said...

I know the feeling, Joyce and Jennie. My characters tend to make their own decisions, too, and like you, Pat, most of my real life relationships tend to defy logic - i.e., how come I ended up marrying that homeless guy instead of one of the guys I went to college with?

As for pitching Harry - are you sure you don't mean "pitting," Ramona? I only wish I could pitch him, what with the conference coming up and that, but, alas, Harry belongs to another.

Ramona said...

LOL, Gina--yes, pitting.

I understand JKR pitched him, to no avail, quite a few times before someone took on the series. I'll bet those naysayers are kicking themselves now.