Tag Archives: characterization

When Gravity Departs, the World Scoffs

Happy almost Fourth of July! Fireworks, barbecue, family and friends… all in celebration of the birth of a nation!

I thought I’d share a writing piece based on the concept of something strange happening. Something that by all accounts shouldn’t be possible. This piece was a writing assignment I completed in graduate school, and it was challenging for me, because I’m so used to writing fantasy and futuristic science fiction. I couldn’t just jump into automatically suspending my disbelief. It’s a short piece, and I hope you enjoy the characterization.

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Without Gravity

At nine AM, Lena Delani sauntered past my cubicle. Her four-inch fireball red heels clip-clopped against the cream linoleum, while her multi-colored python satchel bag swished against her side. She entered Mr. Durham’s office. The glass door sealed shut silently behind her. He was on the phone, his back to the wall of glass separating him from the multitude of cubicles making up the refurbished warehouse turned office space.

Lena flung her bag onto the high-backed button tufted chair in the corner of the room and pounced on Mr. Durham’s back. Her arms wrapped around his neck and she kissed him. Her lips left a smear of red on his cheek.

Mr. Durham started, but when he saw it was Lena, he dropped the phone, twisted around, and grabbed her fully in his arms. He swung her around in a circle. Her heels cracked against the dark cherry desk. A chip of wood flew through the air, smacked into the wall of glass, and then thwacked onto the floor. Mr. Durham’s striped shirt slipped free of his belt and a thin layer of pudge wobbled.

“You’re staring again,” my coworker Annette said. Her head appeared over the lip of her cubicle. Bits of frizzy hair stuck up in all directions. The bun she’d tied her hair into had failed.

A sliver of blueberry was lodged between her two front teeth.

“No, I’m not.” I jabbed the keys on my keyboard. There was nothing on my computer screen, but the clacking of my fingers against the keys continued.

“He’s not going to leave her. Look at her.”

I didn’t.

Annette continued, “She’s got those legs and that hair and that skirt. And those boobs.”

My arm itched. My fingers slammed into the keys. Mr. Durham cared about more than looks. His first wife had been short and fat. His second wife had freckles, like me.

Lena was a break from his previous marriages. She was twenty-one, a model, if you called posing in a clothing catalog and a tattoo removal commercial modeling, and wore skirts that showed off her butt cheeks. Her butt cheeks didn’t sway as she walked. Nothing but her hips and hair swayed.

“Did you hear about that crazy story on the radio?” Annette asked.

I stopped typing. Lena’s fingernails were manicured. Her toenails were too, except they were painted either red or pink or sparkly. Mine were bare and one of them was breaking. If Lena were rated, she’d be a dime. A perfect ten. Me? I hit the delete button on my keyboard.

At Helly Marketing there was no need to be a dime. Forty some cubicles and a few floor-to-ceiling windows that showcased the employee parking lot, arriving at work in the dark, leaving work in the dark, people dressed more for comfort than looks.

And then Lena Delani strode in and morphed us all into pale, wrinkled wraiths.

“The radio? Mary, are you listening?”

Lena laughed, high-pitched and loud. Any louder and the wall of glass would rattle.

“What about the radio?” I asked.

“Some guy said he saw this homeless man float away.” Annette shoved her arm toward the ceiling. “One minute he was standing and the next he rose off the ground and into the air.”

“Lucky him.”

“Lucky? He floated away, and more his head caved in on one side.”

I tapped the Rosie the Riveter Bobblehead on my desk. Rosie squeaked as her head wobbled. “The story’s a hoax. The radio was trying to drum up ratings for their show. You know how it is.”

Annette worked for Helly Marketing for two years before I was hired. When I came in for the interview, Mr. Durham had been there. He wore a dark blue suit and shiny black dress shoes. No pudge, but that was seven years ago. I was still in the same cubicle as when I was hired.

Annette dropped her arm to her cubicle wall. “Maybe, but another radio show I listened to talked about a woman who witnessed two kids up and float away.”

If Lena floated away, her legs wouldn’t be wrapped around Mr. Durham’s waist. Her fingers wouldn’t be clawing at his hair. Her skirt wouldn’t be riding up. If she flew off into the sky, her hair would knot. She’d lose her four-inch heels. Her legs wouldn’t be so great then.

“I did some surfing and found more stories, all over the world. It’s not just people. Bits of ocean and fish. Trees. No one is paying attention, but something’s going on.”

I flicked Rosie harder. She toppled over. Her head clanked against my desk. “People don’t float away.”

Lena’s legs tightened around Mr. Durham’s waist. A stack of papers clattered to the floor. The glass orb Mr. Durham’s daughter made for him, when her sixth grade class went on a field trip to a glassblowing factory last year, teetered on the corner of his desk.

“I’m telling you, there’s something wrong with gravity.”

–The assignment wasn’t to write an entire story, but maybe one day I’ll use this within a larger context…or perhaps it’ll remain as it was originally intended: a writing exercise.

Have a wonderful holiday tomorrow!

(Photo courtesy of Guillaume Delebarre.)

 

The Mary Sue: The “Perfect” Character

I was recently reading some book reviews, when I came across the term “Mary Sue.” I was interested, so I did some research.

Turns out a Mary Sue is a perfect character, usually acting as some sort of wish fulfillment for the author. In other terms, the author is inserting herself into the text through the character.

the_mary_sue_test_by_PinkMochiMary Sue is a term widely used in fan fiction, but has spread to mainstream fiction.

Here’s a great definition of a Mary Sue by Teresa Nielsen-Hayden:

MARY SUE (n.): 1. A variety of story, first identified in the fan fiction community, but quickly recognized as occurring elsewhere, in which normal story values are grossly subordinated to inadequately transformed personal wish-fulfillment fantasies, often involving heroic or romantic interactions with the cast of characters of some popular entertainment. 2. A distinctive type of character appearing in these stories who represents an idealized version of the author. 3. A cluster of tendencies and characteristics commonly found in Mary Sue-type stories. 4. A body of literary theory, originally generated by the fanfic community, which has since spread to other fields (f.i., professional SF publishing) because it’s so darn useful. The act of committing Mary Sue-ism is sometimes referred to as “self-insertion.”

The original Mary Sue was a character used to make fun of unrealistic characters in Star Trek fan fiction. The Mary Sue type character typically is young, smart, skilled, and surrounded by men who want her (or women who want him), usually these men (or women) are powerful, intelligent, attractive, etc. themselves.

When a character is called a Mary Sue it’s because the character (male or female) seems too perfect in one way or in all ways to be real. This creates a poorly developed character and causes many readers to roll their eyes and sigh in exasperation.

Think of it this way: Obstacles that would be different or near impossible for all other characters would be nothing for a Mary Sue.

An example: All other characters, including the villain, will be attracted/obsessed with the Mary Sue. She/he will be coveted and will be given unearned, preferential treatment and respect.

Mary Sues can be difficult to empathize with. Rather they are admired or envied, or sometimes they’re just downright annoying.

Here is an example of a Mary Sue from Monika Kothari on Quora:

Bella Swan – Twilight (Stephanie Meyer)

  • Painfully obvious author surrogate.
  • Perfectly ordinary (yet somehow “special”).
  • Pale-skinned brunette, “plain” yet beautiful.
  • Bland, no real personality.
  • Cutesy “clumsy” (informed flaw).
  • Apparently lacking in any real talents or skills, yet her lover is obsessed with her (rather conveniently), and she manages to make everything about her.
  • Builds a harem of potential love interests, despite being self-described as unremarkable in every way.
  • Her lover, Edward, is himself a Gary Stu.

*A male Mary Sue is sometimes referred to as a Gary Stu.

An example from Natalie Monroe’s Goodreads review:

Celanena (Throne of Glass, Sarah J. Maas)

Let’s start off with our protagonist, Celaena who’s the “greatest assassin in the world”. Okay, I’m cool with that. But it’d be nice if she could actually prove it because from what I’ve seen, she’s once hell of a crappy assassin. People walk in and out of her room all the time when she’s sleeping and she just keeps on snoring. Hello, aren’t you supposed to spring awake like a ninja and hold a knife to that person’s throat?

…Calaena is the kind of idiot that licks stuff off walls, even without the hallucinatory assistance of cactus juice.

But wait, there’s more! Nothing happens to her because she’s purrrfect and fabulous, like that song from High School Musical.

In fact, I’m pretty sure she’s a Mary Sue. Let’s check off her traits, shall we? Tragic past, check. Pretty, check. Amazingly good at something, check. Has more than one love interest, check.

Don’t even get me started on the love interests.

The review goes on, but I’ll stop it there.

Before you go off declaring which characters are Mary Sues and which aren’t, here’s a test to see if your character is a Mary Sue. Click the link.

And here’s a link to help differentiate between whether or not an established character is a Mary Sue.

What characters do you think are Mary Sues?

(Photo courtesy of pinkmochi.deviantart.com)

Characterization According to Aristotle

According to Aristotle, there are four essentials of characterization:

  1. Characters must be credible. 

Characters must be credible as human beings. In others words, readers have to believe a human being, in real life, would do what a character is doing. In real life, people have strengths and weaknesses. They love and hate. They like certain things and dislike others. Characters needs to be able to evoke emotion in readers, and in order to do that they need to be like us.

  1. Characters must be believable.

Characters must be believable as characters. For instance, character A needs to believable as character A, not B, not C, but A. If readers believe that the action a character commits would be done in real life, but not by that character, then you have a problem. Put differently, characters must be appropriate to themselves. A king and a peasant are two very different statuses, and so they’ll act differently from one and another.

  1. Characters must be consistent.

Characters must be consistent to how you make them. Or, if a character breaks consistency, then it’s a purposeful break and is big news. However, for the most part, characters need to be true to their natures. Their actions are rational, not giant leaps of irrationality. No sudden character changes. I recently read a novel where halfway through I had to stop and wonder what happened because suddenly a few of the characters were completely different. And it was a very sudden transition – one page they were one person and the next page they were completely different.

  1. Characters must be good.

This doesn’t mean that a character can’t have flaws. It’s good for a character to be flawed. Without flaws characters aren’t believable, and perfect characters aren’t usually all that popular. What is meant by “good” is that a character has some capacity for good. If the character is bad or evil, there’s a possibility for redemption – that’s what makes villains so tragic. They have the chance to be good, but they chose to go against that path, whether consciously or not.

And if the character is good, such as the heroine or hero of the story, they can’t be all good. Wickedness is mixed with goodness. People in real life aren’t one hundred percent good or bad. Characters shouldn’t be either.

The best characters are those who are caught in the middle, who struggle between right and wrong, good and evil. They’re the most realistic and the most interesting.

Creating a Compelling Character

What comes to mind when you think about characters in fiction? How about your characters? How do you reveal them to readers?

Creating characters readers care about is an essential step to creating a successful novel. It’s not only a character’s physical description. In fact, what a character looks like is only a very small part of creating a compelling character, and probably one of the least important aspects to a character. (Think about it. When you and your friends read the same novel and then talk about it, how often do they picture the characters the same way you did? I know my imagination adds to characters. I’ve even had it where a novel says a guy has black hair, and yet I still picture him blond.)

Here are some ways to reveal a character to readers:

  • Voice. What a character says and what they don’t say tells you something about what that character is like. Also important is how a character says what they say. Think about the statement, “I love it.” If spoken flatly that statement means something very different than spoken excitedly.
  • Action. What a character does in a given situation, or what they don’t do. Action is character. Actions carry more meaning than words. People can say anything. It’s easy to speak, but it’s what a character does that’s truly revealing.
  • Background. A character’s background. I.e.- occupation, family, where he’s from, era, significant events of the past and how he handled those situations, culture, religion, economic situation, gender, race, individual skills and society’s evaluation of those skills, his philosophy of the world (how he views the world), etc.

A character’s reaction to significant events in his life is telling. Multiple people can experience the same event, but each individual reacts differently. Most people have lost a loved one sometime during their life, yet not everyone breaks down in tears or shuts down emotionally, or smiles and seems like nothing’s wrong.

There’s a quote a professor once shared with me. It sums up the previous paragraph. “Not every male who’s close to their mother ends up like Norman Bates.”

  • Internal World of the Character. What a character fears or wants in the larger sense. This relates back to last week’s post on internal pressure, where a character weighs his fear of a situation against the possible outcomes or gains from overcoming his fear.
  • Exposition. This is what you tell the reader. Exposition provides context about the character directly to the reader. This is a vital part of creating a compelling character; however don’t go overboard with exposition. Telling a reader something is good, as long as you don’t forget about also showing the character to the reader.

When creating a compelling character, you need something to tie all the pieces together. Characters, just like people, are made up of a ton of different parts. There’s a reason many consider humans puzzles. But just as puzzles can be put together to form a whole, so must a character. If a character isn’t whole, then his actions won’t make sense.

How do you go about creating compelling characters?