Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Our Characters and Their Subconsciouses

One of the things I struggle with most -- and which I see my critique partners and other writing friends struggle with most -- is characterization.

Broadly defined, characterization is what we show our readers about our characters, from how they walk and speak, to how they react to the human spectrum of experiences. Does your character have a certain physical tick that shows up when he's disappointed or frustrated? Does she have a special turn of phrase that she mutters when she's coping with an emergency? What does he do when a loved one is in danger? How does she react to being rained on?

At its worst, characterization can fall flat; we create characters who do little except react to events as they happen. Though I love Sansa Stark in HBO's Game of Thrones, as I posted on FB the other day, life just keeps happening to her. Over the course of the seasons she's had very little agency in her own life. Most of the time her character is on display is as a victim or pawn of the other characters, and her storylines mostly exist in order to give everyone else a rallying point or scapegoat.

Sansa's default facial expression: "Oh, shit, what fresh hell is this?"

A character like Sansa is fine as a secondary or supporting character. Even in real life I suspect we all know at least one person for whom life just sort of happens to them; they're a magnet for bad luck, bad timing, or too many other dominant personalities in his or her life. Maybe one tiny bad decision, a careless mistake most of us are able to overcome, snowballs into a lifetime of consequences for someone else.

As a main character, though, this sort of life-victim isn't very interesting, unless the plan is to show him or her somehow growing and taking charge. I haven't read the books the show is based on, but I have a strong feeling Sansa is headed that way.

The other way characterization can fall flat is by having otherwise well-rounded characters react to situations in ways our readers find unbelievable. One of the biggest problems I had with the show Weeds -- and the main reason I stopped watching it -- is because I just could not suspend my disbelief enough to cope with the premise of the show: Nancy Botwin, an upper-middle class mother of two teenagers, whose husband has died suddenly, has no other way of supporting her children and living the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed than to sell weed to her neighbors. Somehow, the show wanted us to buy the idea that a family like the Botwins did not have life insurance up to their eyeballs, that they did not have enough savings to get through at least six months without her husband's income, and that Nancy Botwin could not downgrade her home and lifestyle enough to get by without selling illegal drugs. As the show progressed, every decision Nancy made seemed set up to drive her further and further into a life of crime and put her family into danger; unlike Breaking Bad, there was never a feeling of her wanting to separate her life of crime from her family life, and there wasn't the sense of fatalism with Nancy as we get with Walter White in Breaking Bad.

One of the tools I use to create well-rounded characters who behave in ways my readers will believe (I hope!) is psychology. Once you understand human nature and the reasons why people do what they do or believe what they believe, it's much easier to create characters that pop off the page and grab readers.

Villains, especially, are better off with a well-thought out psychological profile. Why does your antag do what he does? Is he just plain evil, or is there something deeper? Does he think he's the good guy? Has he been wronged in some way? Is he somewhere in the psychopathy spectrum? Does he lack empathy? Is he a high-functioning sociopath, or a narcissist? All those traits might seem interchangeable, but once you learn the subtleties of psychopathy vs narcissism, or how a sociopath lacking in empathy might manipulate others around her, you know how to make your bad guy act and react.

I could -- and do -- spend hours browsing the Psychology Today blog index. It's a great resource for articles on nearly every aspect of human psychology, from addiction to trauma recovery to the concepts of good and evil. This article, for example, gives great insight into the mind of a high-functioning sociopath, a real one, and how she moves around in her day-to-day life.

Another great resource, of course, are books. For a while my brother thought he might pursue a career in forensic psychology, possibly as a criminal profiler. Upon further reflection he realized that a career like that probably isn't good for someone diagnosed with pretty severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, but by then he'd already taken a few classes in the psychology and pathology of serial killers.

"Hello, Clarice."

This came in handy when I created the antagonist for my first novel, BLOODSISTERS, Hatchi. I love very charismatic bad guys, ones who draw others to them and manipulate them to their own selfish ends. I love villains with charm and energy. Think The Master from Doctor Who; Moriarty from the modern Sherlock; and my all-time favorite, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. For my purposes, I knew I had to study serial killers, those monsters who manage to draw their victims to them, like Ted Bundy. Hatchi, my villain, was going to be a total psychopath, a killer, a rapist, and a sadist; but he also had to be attractive enough to others to create an army of followers who would stay loyal to him no matter what insanity he provoked. My brother loaned me two of his class text books for this, The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Clarify Some Issues About the So-Called Psychopathic Personality; and Serial Murderers and Their Victims. (I do not recommend either book if you have a weak stomach!) I also read up on some of the 20th century's most infamous cult and cult-like leaders, such as Adolf Hitler. By combining aspects of a true psychopathic, homicidal personality with the traits of leaders who have drawn thousands of followers, I created Hatchi, a megalomaniac rebel determined to control the entire supernatural world I created, with an army of devoted followers at his beck and call. He is focused, he is driven, he is delusional, and he is completely full of himself. He is also able to offer his followers tremendous power and status, and he has a bright sense of humor fueled by cunning and high intelligence. In other words, he's irresistible to most people around him, attracting followers while leaving utter destruction and death in his wake.

(Don't you dare judge me.)

What do you do to bring your characters to life? How do you know how to make your characters behave in ways your readers will believe?


  1. I have long lists of personality traits, values, and beliefs that I start with, and riff on as I detail characters. My experience is that if you build out the details and solidify them in your mind, the character emerges fairly naturally on the page.

    One thing I tend to do is have different characters approaching themes and ideas from different angles - this differentiates them, and makes them active (I hope).

    Nice article. I loved the new Sherlock's take on Moriarty: eternally bored, because nothing is a challenge.

  2. I love the idea of having different characters approach the same ideas and themes from different angles. That's a great way to create believable characters.