by Tiffany Yates Martin
There's a common fallacy of human thinking that you may be as guilty of as I sometimes am.
“He's a jackass….” “That woman is nothing but a gossip.” “I'm such a scatterbrain!”
In cognitive behavioral therapy this is called labeling and mislabeling, reducing a person to a single behavior, and it can become an automatic thought pattern.
When we do it to ourselves it can decimate our self-worth. When we do it to other people it's a way of dismissing and distancing ourselves from them, slotting them into a behavior category rather than seeing them for who they are. When we do it on a societal level it leads to divisiveness and polarization.
It's so easy to fall into this trap, largely because of the way we often learn to go about creating our characters: We literally label their characteristics. It's how we may have been taught to start shaping our characters, and how we create a logline or a synopsis or a query letter: “X is a hard-driving ‘master of the universe’ stockbroker” or “Y is a ruthless former sniper with PTSD,” etc.
These can be practical shortcuts or a starting place for character development, but if we rely too heavily on those reductive definitions as we’re writing, we may hamper ourselves from creating real, nuanced, believable characters.
Once you’ve sketched out your character in broad strokes, how do you start filling in the color, texture, and detail that make them spring off the page and into readers’ imaginations?
Characters, like all human beings, are built and revealed one action, one behavior, one decision at a time. We are shaped moment by moment. Cumulatively our behaviors may create a pattern that can be characterized with certain labels or descriptions, but your job as author is to simply give the reader the data points and let them come to the conclusion that you want to lead them to.
One of my favorite essayists, thinkers, and TED talkers, Tim Urban, describes this memorably in one of his thought-provoking posts: Life is a picture but we live in a pixel. The author shows the characters’ pixels; it’s the reader who forms the picture--that’s what makes readers feel they know your characters and become a direct part of the story.
But simply showing a greedy character behaving in a greedy way, for instance, can still result in a plastic, one-dimensional character. So how do you bring them more fully to life?
People do the things they do for reasons that make total sense to them. Your job as the author is to figure out what those reasons are.
Let's say you have a character you’ve labeled as kind.
Considering your characters’ motivations this way and digging down to what drives them is what allows you to create faceted, believable characters. Then they aren't just playing a role or operating under those narrow character traits. They are acting in ways that are consistent with their belief system and view of the world—and that allows readers to extrapolate from those behaviors who this character is as a fully fleshed person.
Vague generalizations result in vague, generalized characters.
Is it her day-to-day actions?
Or is it in her attitude and approach to people.
And in all cases, what does that specifically look like—can you let us see it on the page through some concrete action, behavior, or exchange? Show isn’t always stronger than tell, but in bringing your characters to rich, vivid life for readers it usually is.
Kind people can act in cruel ways. Cruel people may find gentleness in their heart for a child or a dog. In creating characters who feel authentic and engaging, paint in shades of gray, rather than black-and-white.
People are more than one thing. And there are hosts of reasons people are the way they are and do the things they do. Rather than relying on broad surface definitions, letting yourself plumb the depth and breadth of who your characters are as whole people will bring them—and your stories—fully, memorably to life.
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Tiffany Yates Martin has spent nearly thirty years as an editor in the publishing industry, working with major publishers and New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling and award-winning authors as well as indie and newer writers, and is the founder of FoxPrint Editorial and author of the bestseller Intuitive Editing: A Creative and Practical Guide to Revising Your Writing. Under the pen name Phoebe Fox, she's the author of six novels, including the recently released The Way We Weren't(Berkley/PRH). Visit her at www.foxprinteditorial.com or www.phoebefoxauthor.com.
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