December 2019/January 2020 Update: Note that Damon Suede resigned from RWA under a cloud of fraud and lies. I debated removing this post so as not to allow him access to my platform, but writers might find his insights on characters helpful regardless, so I’m leaving the post here for craft reasons.
When we first start writing, we discover that many words we’re familiar with have different meanings within the context of the writing and publishing world.
For example, outside of the writing world, the word conflict often evokes images of fist fights or screaming matches. However, in the writing world, conflict can be used more generally to describe a gap between what characters want and what they have.
Another word we’re all familiar with from our earliest days of reading is character. Characters inhabit every story, and yet we might not have thought deeply about what they are, what they mean for our story, and how we can use that knowledge to create characterization.
I first learned of author Damon Suede from Twitter, especially once he became a member of RWA’s national board. He’s taught writing to various ages and levels for more than two decades and enjoys sharing his insights.
Today’s post is no exception, as his guest post went in directions I never could have anticipated when we first discussed a “post on characters.” Just as I’m kind of a nut who loves to dive deep into story structure, he feels that way about characters.
Please welcome Damon Suede! *smile*
The Evolution of Imaginary People in Entertainment
by Damon Suede
I want to thank Jami for letting me come here to talk about character today. I’m a little obsessive about the power of story people, so it’s a topic I mull constantly.
Today, Jami asked me to talk a little about what character IS and how that impacts portrayals in storytelling. I’m also happy to discuss nuts-n-bolts characterization depending on your focus, so please comment if you have questions or opinions you feel like discussing.
Because my entertainment career started out in showbiz, I arrived in fiction with an odd perspective. Scripts for film/TV/theatre/comics don’t actually dictate much detail about casting beyond the absolute basics. The exigencies of packaging, production, budgets, and market appeal can pull all your authorial illusions and preconceptions inside out; a canny scripter learns to embrace that challenge.
As a result, my approach to character has always sprung from something deeper than traits and quirks. That stuff simply doesn’t go deep enough to anchor the writing process.
The Missing Pieces for Understanding Characters
For all the how-to writing guides on the market, very few on character exist, and most of those recycle existing character theories whole and undigested, assuming their value without weighing their application to the actual writing process.
Never mind that most of this theory came from savvy audience members (like Aristotle or Barthes) rather than creators (e.g. Euripides or Austen). Never mind the demise of the underlying beliefs, prejudices, and assumptions.
Character is a slippery fish, and most fiction craft guides talk around it. There are a few standout titles, but a lot of what passes for characterization advice is sketchy to the point of comedy: “characters are fake people… now go write your story.”
Not only are characters NOT “fake people,” they are devices which serve specific functions in the architecture of a story. That’s a huge topic for a different day, but glossing over their importance or dismissing them with glib assumptions makes for silly mistakes and sillier books.
Shady Elements & Contradictory Meanings
In all entertainment, character tends to occupy a murky swamp of assumptions, traditions, and opinions. Show business has always seemed dodgy to the muggles because of its relation to impersonation, disguise, and deception. Seeing characters in a story, we learn to doubt surfaces and the reality of the folks around us.
Even the word “character” is suspiciously contradictory. We use it for a strange range of tangential concepts, and even as of 2018 it can refer to
- A role in a narrative (I.e. book, play, film, comic, song, game)
- Someone’s essential nature
- Unique strength, virtue, or originality which attracts notice.
- A distinct or idiosyncratic feature
- A report or avowal of someone’s good qualities
- Someone’s reputation or morality
- A printed or written symbol
When someone tells you, “I loved that character” or “I didn’t connect with the character,” how can you know which meaning(s) factors in their reaction? The various understandings of character can lead to dazzling results or shaky, shoddy characterizations.
In a sense, the many meanings of “character” and the expectations in different genres can create actual, tangible craft dilemmas we have to wrestle on the fly. Every author brings a different bag of tricks.
Of course, literature, and indeed all creative arts have been such suspect professions for so long that the jargon of art tends to be vague, contradictory, and mutable…shifting as times and temperaments change. Artists and critics create words that work for a while and torture them into new configurations as needed.
The core components of entertainment persist, but the interpretation varies wildly. What an Athenian meant by drama, plot, character, suspense, and beauty vary drastically from the versions used by Commedia players, Elizabethan poets, Kathakali dancers, Borscht Belt comedians, or the staff writers on The Sopranos. What writers write, what stories show, what audiences expect has never stopped evolving and expanding.
This creates some serious challenges for a working author, natch. When five people sit down to talk about character, odds are good that they have five different ideas of what that word means. Worse, those ideas give different weight and importance to the very idea of characters.
In the Beginning, the Classical Character
In Aristotle’s Poetics, while he was busy laying the foundations of all literary criticism, he says something pretty startling. After dividing drama (and thence literature) into six essential components—plot, character, thought, diction, music, spectacle—IN THAT ORDER, he goes on to suggest that plot is primary to story success and character comes second in importance.
Important to remember: Aristotle was a brilliant member of the audience. He never wrote a story and all of his observations come after the fact. He dissected dramatic narrative because he was a biologist with a philosophical axe to grind.
What do we mean by “character”? The answer is surprisingly complex... Click To TweetFor several centuries, scholars used Aristotle’s ranking of plot over character as a critical stick to beat writers. By that logic, genres (like mystery, thriller, and adventure) that foreground plot and incident must be better than those that feature characters and emotion (like romance, humor, and women’s fiction).
Even now, plenty of genres insist that character means squat…that what fans want is plot-plot-plot. And yet we know that’s nonsense: plot cannot happen without character, and vice versa. Plot and character cannot be separated.
So…Character isn’t what it once was because it never was what it was. Important to note is that the Greek words commonly translated as plot (mythos) and character (ethos) don’t actually mean either of those things in the modern sense.
Whenever Aristotle talks about “character” in the Poetics, he’s not talking about an imaginary person in a story, but a series of actions which indicate value and values. The meaning of ethos is closer to “habitual action“—that which one repeatedly does—rather than a role or an identity.
The notion of “character” circles several odd, philosophical questions swimming around down at the roots of story:
- What is a person?
- Can people change?
- Why are we alive?
- What is the point?
- Who matters?
- What are happiness and misery and who deserves which?
Peel back the layers of pulp fiction, and you trip over some intense, ethical debates about human agency and purpose. At the end of a day, writers need to be able to craft characters on time and on cue. We got bills to pay, yo!
Evolution of the Word Character
So what is a character?
The English word “character” come from the Greek word kharaktḗr (χαρακτήρ), originally meaning a stamp or engraving tool used to create distinctive, decorative marks on small objects. From this source, we get the idea of a character as a symbol in an alphabet which persists to this day.
By the late Renaissance, “character” as symbol had evolved into the metaphorical sense of a singular trait or characteristic that identified a person; by the 17th century “character” indicated a person’s essential nature (which Aristotle identified as their ethos).
Then in 1749 its idiosyncratic use in Fielding’s Tom Jones popularized the current meaning of the theatrical impersonation and Fielding’s showbiz metaphor altered our language forever after.
By the 19th century, the word “characterization” indicated the process by which performers and writers represented a person in a work of art.
Once entertainment had evolved into film and TV and beyond, “character” resembled a battered totebag stuffed with 2000 years of belief and assumption.
Now all this may seem like crazy self-involved wordplay, but every time the word character evolved, the way characters were portrayed in art changed as well…which is why Greek tragedy and Elizabethan drama and Comedy of Manners and Vaudeville and Netflix miniseries share creative DNA but vary so drastically…they express different beliefs about characters and their function in a story.
 “whatever characters any of the passengers have for the jest-sake personated on the road are now thrown off.” (1749, Fielding, Tom Jones).
Genres Have Different Expectations of Characters
When an author decides to spin a yarn, how does character, and indeed, all the different layers of the idea of character, play in that process. How does the genre dictate the limits and potential of a character?
Some audiences expect depth and complexity, for others it’s anathema. By adopting and adapting the patterns of your genre, you enter a kind of conversation, a game with your reader to see if your ability to dream up stories can outpace their skepticism and other demands on their attention.
No one would call Miss Marple a “deep” character but she is a pitch-perfect cozy mystery heroine, seismic in her impact on the genre. No one would say Edmond Dantès is a “shallow” character, and yet he is one of the legendary protagonists of adventure sagas, a genre notorious for its thin characterizations. Knowing how and when the types of character factor can dictate your success in that stretch of the bookshelf.
Facets of Character
Before you dismiss all this as a pigpile of historical and linguistic trivia, notice how many ideas wove themselves into the idea of character as it mutated:
- a specialist tool for decorative markings (which makes…)
- a unique mark, sign, or letter (which suggests…)
- a distinctive trait or temperament (which implies…)
- a person’s essential nature (which anchors…)
- an ethical position or perspective (which exposes…)
- a composite of a person’s moral actions (which proves…)
- fundamental virtues and values (which permits…)
- a creative depiction of an invented person meant to entertain an audience.
The trouble with that kind of funky origin story is that no one interpretation is entirely accurate, which seems right for a word that is as complex as the idea it describes. All of these facets factor, but Aristotle knew the deal and nailed it way back at the dawn of Western literature: Character is habitual action.
Characters Reveal the Story
All of the other secondary and tertiary components only gild the narrative lily. If we can agree that characters have to do something that matters, then their meaningful acts becomes the cornerstone of characterization.
The entire of action of every story reveals itself through characters and from that action we extrapolate:
- imaginary entities meant to entertain us based on genre tropes
- a composite of their moral choices
- their impact and import in their community
- their ethical position and just desserts
- their essential nature
- their general temperament
- their defining characteristics
- their symbolic function in their stories.
Notice that as listed above, these different facets of character essentially move backward in time, from our current showbiz understanding to that original tool for engraving, stringing centuries of concepts together like beads on a necklace.
In a sense the word “character” didn’t shed those earlier meanings, it deepened and expanded them. Those earlier resonances persist and inform any art form that characterizes someone. The best characterization must juggle all those balls effortlessly, so that a bunch of marks on a page (kharaktḗr) spring to life in the reader’s imagination.
The next time you sit down to plan a story, ask yourself not just who your characters are, but what facets of characterization need to factor in their portrayal so they serve your story.
Weigh those audience expectations, so that you can meet and exceed them. Your stories will come out stronger and your voice will ring truer.
Damon grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen almost three decades and just released his first craft book: Verbalize, a practical guide to characterization and story craft.
He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him on Twitter, Facebook, or at DamonSuede.com.
Thank you, Damon! I appreciated the look at the history of the word and how that affects the various ways we use characters in our stories today. I never would have thought about all those facets, despite having in-depth conversations with my characters before. *grin*
Damon gets into several really deep ideas here related to the perspective that fiction is all about exploring human nature. As he said, even the shallowest genre stories still have something to say through their characters about humanity.
If our plot is meant to reveal our character (how they respond to obstacles, etc.), then in a way, our characters reveal the story. Our story’s themes and the messages behind the struggle are all exposed by our characters.
I hope you found Damon’s insights helpful. Feel free to ask questions about characters or characterization in the comments, even regarding more of a nuts-and-bolts look at what characterization looks like on the page. *smile*
What does character or characterization mean to you? Did you know any of the history of the word before? Do you struggle with creating characters or how to reveal them through characterization? Do you have any questions for Damon? Do you have any suggestions for a follow-up post about characters or characterization?Pin It