Specialized Cells: Writing Process II

Let’s talk about indirect characterization. On your list for writing believable characters and worlds (you should have a list for everything), this is going to be a major ally. Not only is it simple to incorporate, but it is also very easy to mess up. This is where “show don’t tell” comes into play, yet again.

I want to focus on character building, rather than world-building (see previous post), but know that indirect characterization operates for more than just characters. The world in which a character functions can be a useful tool when deciding what traits, attitudes, and reactions you want your characters to possess. Worlds and characters often go hand-in-hand. In my experience, at least.

What do I mean when I say “show don’t tell?” Primary characters are the ones who develop over the course of your work, so you want that to be an exploration for the reader, not an explanation. Secondary characters can give aid to this cause because secondaries are not the focus of the work. However, don’t get caught up in telling through secondary mouths, experiences, perspectives. Showing is still critical. For example, if my secondary character, is Zoey, then Daisy is my primary. Here’s what NOT to do:

Zoey, talking to another secondary: “Daisy is such a manipulative, power-hungry female because her own mother left her at a young age. She can’t handle things being out of her own control.”

Yeah… don’t do that. Instead, drop hints or clues along the way that build Daisy up as manipulative, power-hungry. You can do that through secondary characters, and how they perceive your main character, just don’t be so explicit. It’s also okay to include some backstory to your primaries, so long as it’s not a history textbook-style recantation of your character’s tragic past. People pick up books to escape dull episodes like that.

Another thing to keep in mind when drafting characters is relatability. Relatable characters are the ones your readers will pay attention to. They want them to succeed, be happy and prosper, make mistakes and learn from them. It’s important to create characters your readers can empathize with, but also be unique. Sometimes, the most memorable, most east to fall in love with characters are the oddest ones. I am definitely thinking about Megan Whalen Turner’s Eugenides from the Queen’s Thief series. Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s Sir Eanrin from The Tales of Goldstone Wood is another that pops into my head. If you’ve ever read a book (as writers are liable to do), then you probably have your own examples jumping out at you now, too.

Utilizing indirect characterization requires that you know your characters pretty well. You know their responses, thoughts, and reactions. And if they’ve been living in your head for near six years, you’ll start hearing their voices too. (Please don’t take that literally. I mean their literary voices, not real voices.) To get to know your characters better, you can do exercises like answering Marcel Proust’s questionnaire (link below), as if you were one of your brainchildren. This is really helpful, especially in the beginning stages of plotting personality.

Something else I like to do is come up with a random scenario and configure how each of my primaries would react to it. For example, if five of my characters from The Pretenders were locked in a room with a snake, what would their initial reactions be? Corolla would probably take a step back and never take her eyes off the snake. Castan would cross his arms and scowl at the thing. Calyx would crouch down and study the pattern and design of its scales. Kassandra would just murder it with acid. And Talan would immediately grab it, shove it in people’s faces, without first realizing that that’s not an acceptable thing to do.

As a writer, it’s tempting to spell out everything in as much detail as possible– even with characters, their reactions and personalities. But this also creates rigidity. Readers like forming their own hypotheses and conclusions of your characters and worlds. Of course, the words you chose to describe and explain these features set the reader up for interpretation, but you’re not blatantly writing the exact emotions your reader should feel. Leave room for ambiguity. If you construct your characters and worlds correctly, this ambiguity will often “speak” louder than words. I like to think of this as laying the railroad tracks that will guide and carry your reader through your work. And, spoilers aside, if any of you have read my work, you know that train crashes and burns at the end. Just as I intended.

Further Sources:

Marcel Proust’s Questionnaire

Reader’s Digest Sourcebook Building Believable Characters by Marc Mucutcheon.


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