month we continued looking at my process for characterization I call
Personalizing. If you haven’t read Part I, and Part II,
please do it before you proceed.
This month we take up the
discussion of our young character who wants to pursue a career in the
military. We left him last month with the discovery of an inner value
(Personalizing step #2): proving himself to his father and grandfather
(both military men) is more important than even his own integrity.
If this were your character, you
could now probe further to find what trait will result from this inner
value (step #3). Perhaps the young man will appear overly zealous in
all he does, even to the point of being foolhardy, in order to achieve.
Or perhaps he’ll be just the opposite—
reluctant and cautious due to fear of failure.
Once you discover the trait,
continue with the questioning to see if you can “hit bottom” again and
reveal a specific mannerism (steps #4 and 5). If the trait is that the
character borders on foolhardiness in order to prove himself, you might
ask: How does he handle nervous energy when he faces a challenge? Does
he try to hide it so he can appear calm, cool, and collected? If so,
how well does he manage this? Even if he hides his nervousness well, is
there a vulnerable part of his body to which the energy naturally
flows? Perhaps he broke an arm by falling off a bicycle when he was too
young to ride a two-wheeler—one of those early failures at trying to
achieve for the sake of his father’s approval. The memory still eats at
him, and as a result, he unconsciously flexes that arm when he’s
For any character, once you’ve
gone through all five personalizing steps with one line of questioning,
start the process all over again by going back to Level B and picking
up another line of questioning until you again “hit bottom” and
discover another inner value. Then probe your character until you
discover the resulting trait and mannerism(s). Continue your
questioning in this way until you have discovered all the inner values,
traits, and mannerisms of your character that you possibly can. Your
character will then be a unique, personalized individual.
We’ve now looked at two very
different characters going through the Personalizing process: a newly
rich woman and a young man wanting a career in the military. They are
merely examples, and the questioning could have gone far differently if
these were your characters. Now take your
protagonist through the Personalizing process. And any other important
character in your book—perhaps a second protagonist or a list of
supporting characters. Each important character in your novel should be
well-defined and unique—and so deserves Personalizing.
As you go through the
Personalizing process with your characters, keep these three important
points in mind:
The personalizing process is not a “one-shot deal.”
You will find yourself returning
to its steps again and again. No matter how diligently you follow the
process, characters just don’t tend to reveal themselves all at once.
As you write your novel, they’ll hint at new facts about themselves,
opening up new lines of questioning for you to follow. Take the time to
go through the process again. No doubt you’ll discover new truths about
character’s inner values are not separate entities.
Sometimes they work together to
produce resulting traits. Sometimes they mitigate each other. As an
example, let’s return to the newly rich woman with the inner value that
her self-worth is tied to her money. This inner value could result in
the trait of acting proud or even flaunting her wealth. However, as you
pursue other lines of questioning, you might discover that she also
possesses the inner value of placing the utmost importance on other
people’s approval. What will be the result of these two inner values
working together? It depends on which one is stronger. If the need for
approval is stronger, when this woman is with others who don’t value or
possess money as she does, she may tone down her flaunting in order to
gain their approval. Or if she’s with others who are wealthy, she may
flaunt all the more to be accepted.
personalizing process can work backward.
Let’s say right off the bat your
character tells you that he doesn’t walk; he strides like a superhero
on a mission. Don’t respond, “No, no, I’m not supposed to know that
yet.” Instead, ask him why. Work your way up a line of questioning from
step #4 to 3 to 2 and 1. When you do this, one of two things will
happen. Either you will find the inner value that supports that
superhero stride or you will discover that you’ve misheard your
character, for the truths you uncover will not support that manner of
walking. In the latter case, be ruthless about tossing that stride
aside, for if you insist on keeping it, you won’t be true to the
Important Tip: If your character
ever surprises you by doing something you wouldn’t have expected—you
have just stumbled upon an inner trait you didn’t know the character
had. Don’t stop the creative flow—write until the scene is done. But
then stop and explore this inner value. See where else it might lead.
Second tip: Try Personalizing
yourself. I guarantee you’ll learn something about yourself.
from Getting Into
Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn