If I build it, will they come?
Posted February 20, 2011on:
I was on Twitter yesterday–no surprise there–and I came across a tweet in which someone posted the definition of characterization as given in some dictionary. One of the first things that popped into my head was a bit of wonderment, that a writer would care particularly what a dictionary had to say about anything. While I like dictionaries for many purposes, playing Scrabble among them,I can’t imagine limiting my use of words to what a dictionary says it is. A dictionary is after all simply a repository of the way words have been used so far. In the past. Before I wrote the book I’m writing now. So if I use a word in a way some dictionary doesn’t like, that’s too bad for the dictionary. Not that I want to go too far afield, either, since I do want people to read my books and it helps that goal if they can understand most of what I’m saying. Like any other metric, the unfamiliar should be outweighed by the familiar.
Of even greater interest was the definition presented. “The aggregate of features or traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.” Which makes a character sound like something I construct from a pool of traits and features until I get what I want. Umm, no.
I suppose there are some authors who practice this form of character creation. I once read a very nice series of novels about an author whose character decided to become real and improve her life. In practically every book, he was described as having this person’s hair, that person’s lips, some other guy’s eyes, or accent, or…you get the idea. Frankenstein’s monster sounded more human. Fortunately the books were much better than that, and those were the only scenes of that sort I can recall from the books.
To me it sounds just incredibly superficial. (I suppose I should add at this point that I was once a psychology major, until I realized that Behavioral psychology and I just don’t mix.) Aristotle (who upheld a Practice theory of virtue ethics) was closer than John B. Watson (the founder of the Behavioral school of psychology) by a long way but even he could be a little short-sighted at times. Of course, Aristotle also lived in a time when people were defined by the society they lived in, and not the other way around. Defining people by the city or by the book they appear in are both equally odious and limiting techniques. Aristotle couldn’t conceive of certain people being capable of virtue since they had no opportunities to practice it. In m0st books where people are described by their traits and features, I immediately wonder at what point in the story one of these features will turn out to determine the story, and which will be the red herrings. By limiting what I can do with my own characters it also limits what I can do with my books.
I make my characters the old-fashioned way. I rip out pieces of my own soul and throw them onto the page. I follow them around to see what they’ll do in the situations I manage to think up for them to be put into. I explore them, I discover them, I don’t characterize them. I may as well try to characterize myself.