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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

characterization

What Makes Him (or Her) So Attractive?

While I was toiling away at character sketches yesterday, I realized that I was also making conscious choices about those characters based on their relationships to one another.  We're all aware of family resemblances.  Sometimes you can just look at a group of pictures and pick out the ones that are members of the same family. Siblings often look like stair steps in more than just size; they are larger or smaller images of each other. The first thing people say about a new baby is something like, "Oh look, he has your eyes (or nose or ears). One blond child in a family of brunettes is likely to raise eyebrows as people speculate about the child's father. 

Now obviously, many of those observations are wrong-headed, but there is no question that family members tend to look alike.  A writer must keep that in mind.  I'm often put off a movie or TV program by actors who do not look enough like one another to be convincing as brothers or sisters.  Currently, for example, I have a slight problem with Downton Abbey, simply because I cannot see Mary, Edith, and Sybil as sisters. Each one is a fine actress in her own right, but together I find them disconcerting.  Nor did Shirley MacLain convince me that she could really be Lady Grantham's mother.

Here are some assumptions I follow when working on characterization.  I'm not saying that any of them have scientific proof to back them up, but they do help to make my characters more believable.

1. I'll start with my favorite, simple because it seems so implausible.  If  you want to know whether a marriage will succeed or fail, look at the couple's noses.  If their noses match, chances are that their personalities will, too.  I questioned that at first, until I looked at myself and my husband in the bathroom mirror one morning as we stood side by side.  Yep! there's one reason we've been married for fifty-two years. At that very moment two of our friends were divorcing -- one had a tiny snub nose. the other a hooked beak. No wonder they fought all the time!

2. In general women pick men who look like (or behave like) their fathers, and men pick women who remind them of their mothers. Superficial resemblance may in some cases by less important than similar personalities, but there is frequently something that rings a familiar bell. In my own case, I was entirely too "corn-fed" to resemble my tiny mother-in-law, but I realize that our personalities are closer than I would like to admit. As for my father and my husband, they shared height, hairlines, tendency to park in front of sports broadcasts, and even their first names.

3. Children often resemble their same-sex grandparents rather than their parents, both in superficial characteristics and in personality.  Bonds between grandparents and grandchildren are usually stronger, particularly when children are at odds with their parents in some way. Perhaps it's because Grandma looks at the child and sees herself.

4. Parents tend to favor offspring who look like themselves, and to be harder on the odd duck in the family.  Thinking about that for a moment, perhaps that's one explanation for Edith's character in Downton Abbey.  She is all wrong for the Grantham family, blonde where the others have dark hair, skinny rather than nicely rounded . . .and that pointy nose! No wonder she is always the one left out.        

5. The older you get, the more you resemble your same-sex parent, so there's some truth in the advice that a young man who wants to know what his future wife will look like should take a good hard look at her mother. Several years ago, I taught in a summer program in England.  The tutors all stayed in college residences, and several of us shared a bathroom.  One of our number came to breakfast one morning stating, "I hate our shower! Every time I step out, I have to look in that full-length mirror, and I think my mother is in the room."   The next day, I made sure to notice the mirror.  My colleague was wrong.  Her mother wasn't there at all.  Mine was!

OK, none of these observations are scientific.  But my characters seem more real when I remember to apply them. Can you think of others?

Getting To Know You

Now I'm working on the character sketches for which Scrivener provides a useful template.  Here's the first one:

Georg Louis Dubois

"Role in Story:    Father of Susan Grenville
 Occupation:    Cotton planter, with plantations on Edisto Island, James Island,  and on outskirts of Aiken, SC

Physical Description:    middle-height, slender, dark brown hair and eyes, dimple in chin. Skin always tanned from long hours overseeing work in the fields; skin around eyes crinkled from the sun.

Personality:    almost unflappable; he has always controlled his world, recognizes no challengers, and therefore does not go looking for trouble. He loves the finer things in life —  a good cigar, fine wines, French foods, horses with good bloodlines, well-trained hunting dogs.

Habits/Mannerisms:    A single raised eyebrow is usually enough to let his children, wife, servants, and friends know that they have stepped over one of his invisible lines of propriety. When he’s impatient, he waggles his fingers, as if they are itching to take charge. when he's angry, his fists clench involuntarily.

Background:    Came from French planter family on Martinique; thus a long history of slave-ownership, although his attitude was much influenced by the laws under which his Huguenot ancestors had lived. (In 1685, Louis XIV signed into law the Code Noir (Black Code), which regulated slavery in the French colonies. The law, originally conceived by French Finance Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert prior to his death in 1683, was finalized by his son Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Marquis de Seignelay, and presented to the King for his signature in 1685. The law limited the rights of slave-holders, ensured that freed blacks held the same rights as other Frenchmen in the islands, and required that all slaves be baptised as Catholics. ) His own slaves were treated kindly, seldom subjected to any kind of physical punishment, and were allowed a certain degree of autonomy.

Internal Conflicts:    He worried about having only one son to inherit his property, and was despondent when that son died in 1856. He loved his daughter Susan but did not believe a woman was capable of managing property.

External Conflicts:    Because of his liberal attitude toward his slaves, he was often at odds with his neighbors.  He hated the 3/5 rule that denied slaves their full humanity, and regularly violated the laws against teaching a slave to read.

Notes:    He died in 1858, having fallen from his horse and then suffered a stroke. To his last breath, he was angry about it."

I'll be doing one of these for each member of the family, as well as the slaves who will play on-going roles in the story.  They are useful in many ways.  By establishing the character first, I'll have a better idea of how to write his scenes.  The details also make sure that a character does not have blue eyes in one scene and brown ones in another.

Seven More Questions to Ask Your Main Characters

Here are seven more questions to throw at your characters while you are speed-dating them. Pay close attention to the last three or four, because they will become important as you write. Your reader will forgive you eventually for forgetting that John's eyes are blue, not hazel, but they'll leave you if your character slouches in one scene and struts in another.

I should have taken the Mouse's advice when writing my current WIP. Because I hadn't thought through what her role would be in he story, one of my characters started out as innocuous and bland. Then, 200 pages later, she pulled the rug out from under one of my other characters in a particularly vicious manner, and her actions made no sense at all. I had to go back and re-write some of the beginning in order to make her final behaviors believable.

So ask your characters about these things and then use the mannerisms and verbal tics throughout the story.


•  What beliefs do you hold most tightly? Which ones would you be willing to carve on a rock?

•  What is your idea of a perfect day? Where and with whom would you spend it, and what would you do?

•  What are your favorite expressions? Do you use the latest slang, or do you show off your extensive vocabulary? Do you slip into a more pronounced accent or dialect when you are excited? Do you have a verbal tic, saying “um” or “uh” or “like” or ”you know”?

•  What does your posture say about you? Do you slouch, or hunch your shoulders, or keep your arms crossed? Do you keep your eyes on the ground when you walk? Or are your shoulders thrown back as a sign of confidence?

•  What about eye contact? Do you keep looking away, or are you giving me a belligerent stare? Are you squinting at me or raising a skeptical eyebrow? Are you avoiding eye contact because you are nervous or because you are bored? Does your smile reach your eyes?

•  Does standing close to someone make you uncomfortable? Or do you frequently reach out to make physical contact?

•  And what do your other gestures say about you? Do you play with your hair or brush it back impatiently? Do you have a “twitch” or unconscious mannerism? Do you pick at a hangnail, chew your lip, shuffle your feet, or bite your fingernails?
 
We all send out signals with our body language, and most of us are able to interpret those signals, if only subconsciously. If your characters behave as real people do, your readers will judge them accurately.

To read more tips on characterization, visit the Mouse at http://www.amazon.com/Second-Mouse-Gets-Cheese-ebook/dp/B0076B1TE2

Seven Questions to Ask Your Main Character

A current commercial features a  couple in a speed-dating situation.  He pulls out all his favorite pick-up lines and she destroys him by quoting from his own Facebook page. The ad is cute and funny, but it always reminds me of a suggestion I included in "The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese." Before you write your book, get to know the characters in your book by speed dating them.  Here are some of the questions I suggest you ask:


•  What is your name? Does it have a special significance to your family? Do you have a nickname?

•  How old are you, and where were you born? Have you stayed in one location or moved around? And if you have moved, at what point in your life?

•  What was your family like when you were growing up? Did you have brothers and sisters, and where do you fall, age-wise, in the list of your parents’ children? Are you still the responsible one because you were the oldest? Or are you the forgotten middle child, or the spoiled youngest one?

•  Did you have pets as a child? If you could choose just one pet, would you turn out to be a cat-person (independent) or a dog-person (eager and friendly)?

•  Do you have a large circle of companions, or only a couple of close friends? Have you moved in the same small circle all your life, or have you reached out to meet new people? And how do you choose your friends?

•  What is your greatest strength? Your greatest weakness?

•  What do you dream of doing? If you could be someone else, who would you choose?

Three New Rules for Historical Fiction

Here are some of my rules for writing historical fiction.  They may not apply to all writers, but they guide me in the choices I make and the kinds of research I do.  Read them first.  Then later this weekend, I'll show you how they helped me choose which of my diary copies would become my writing guide.

 1. Be true to the time period.

Don't ever guess at the order in which events took place.  Double-check dates and times so that you don't run a chance of turning a cause into an effect.  There's a difference between saying that a man shot a dog because the dog attacked him, or that the dog attacked the man who tried to shoot him. In the first instance, we're dealing with a vicious dog; in the second, the man may be the one who is vicious.

If your story  is  about people who live in a particular time period, be sure you know the appropriate details of dress, food availability, household furnishings, modes of transportation, and social customs of the period.  Also check details of local vegetation, climate, and wildlife habitats. Don't let your native of Oklahoma pull a salmon out of the local river.

If your story also involves actual political or military events, your responsibilities multiply.  Your descriptions and discussions must reflect the facts as they were known at the time. Don't let hindsight lead you astray here.  We now know that a pregnant woman who  takes the drug thalidomide  runs a grave risk of birth defects in her unborn child, but the doctors who prescribed the drug to cure morning sickness back in the 50s did not. Don't blame someone for lack of knowledge if that knowledge was unavailable at the time.

2. Be true to your story.

Most historians hate playing "what if" with history. No matter how many alternative universes you may describe, it won't change the one in which  your events actually took place.  What if Germany had won World War II?  Maybe Hitler would have managed to turn the entire world population into blond, blue-eyed Aryans.  Or maybe he would have turned out to be a really nice guy whose genetic experiments resulted in the cure of cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Or maybe he would have been hit by a bus and we would have discovered that we didn't need to fight that war after all. Now we're talking fantasy, not history. And while fantasy may be amusing, it doesn't increase anyone's understanding of anything.

Don't change the facts to suit your story.  Change your story to make it fit the facts. The people who  read historical fiction may be people who know the period well.  Or, if they don't know much about the history, they are probably hoping to learn something from your story.  It's foolish to try to hoodwink the first type of reader because they will just dismiss you as clueless.  It's unkind to mislead the second type of reader, because you will be betraying their trust.  Either way, you will lose readers, not gain them.

3. Most important, be true to your character.

If you are writing about a real person, you  owe it to yourself and to her to find out as much as possible about her.  Don't exaggerate her education or experiences.  Work with her own life to make her struggles more understandable.  Don't rely solely on gossip or what others thought about the character.  Ask what she thought about herself. That's why diaries and personal letters are so helpful when you are trying to flesh out a character.

Judge the characters in your story only as you could have judged them in person.  You must not criticize someone who made a well-considered decision simply because it turned out badly.  You need to look beneath the result to discover the intention. Don't just blame Lincoln for not acting earlier to emancipate the slaves. You must try to understand what he hoped  the Civil War would accomplish before you can judge his efforts. Before you judge a slave-owner, you must at least try to understand why he needed to have slaves in the first place.  Only then can you start to examine his treatment of those slaves.

Finally, let your characters be real.  Nobody's good and kind all the time.  We all have thoughts and temptations we're not proud of.  We all have weaknesses.  At the other end of the scale, nobody's pure evil.  The meanest boss may have a penchant for big-eyed puppies.  A kid who terrorizes the neighborhood has a mother who loves him. The heartless mother will willingly sacrifice her life for her child. Don't try to gloss over the unattractive elements of your character's personality.  If she's perfect, everyone will hate her by the end of the first paragraph.Your readers want real people -- people with whom they can identify, people they understand because they recognize them.