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Sunday, September 15, 2013

THE ABC'S OF HOW 'NOT' to WRITE SPECULATIVE FICTION - C is for CHARACTERIZATION (PART ONE)


ONE OF THE PROBLEMS I'M HAVING with re-writing the ABC’s , is that as I look over what I wrote six years ago, I have to remind myself that the book really is a primer, meant for writers who are just starting out. To me, these errors are so obvious, yet I still see character-flawed stories showing up in the On Spec slush pile. What I’m going to do in these next few ABC posts, is to paraphrase what I wrote about characterization years ago, and then elaborate on it. Welcome to ‘C’ is for Characterization (Part One).

When characterization isn't done properly, it’s often a ‘depth’ issue. If you think about defining yourself, I doubt if you'd limit your description to a few characteristics. We all have many facets to our personalities. A problem in our writing occurs when we don’t present our characters in the same way – when we don’t take the time to really think about who they are. When this occurs, characters become place-holders - they serve as things or as part of the setting, rather than people.

If your prose features any of the following characters (and usually they're secondary characters, but not always), think twice about how you present them. I’ve seen the following stereotypes show up in the slush pile too many times:

-          The high IQ geek
-          The evil or quirky scientist
-          The sexy waitress
-          The sleazy drug dealer
-          The heavy-set bully
-          The washed-out drunk
-          The lost, little girl
-          The knows-the-score prostitute or high-class hooker
-          The misguided religious preacher
-          The dumb jock
-          The bug-eyed monster, evil alien, obedient robot, ‘who-am-I-really?’ clone
-          The confused or victimized boyfriend
-          The bitchy or naïve girlfriend
-          The undefeatable army guy, robo-cop, or deadly mercenary
-          The calculating thief
-          The ‘dag-nabbit’ grandpa
-          The cool and collected evil sorcerer
-          The feminist swordswoman or high priestess
-          The witch, earth mother, herbalist/wise woman
-          The hired thug, the mob boss, the down-on-his-luck detective
-          The clever cat
-          The mother, the father, the kid sister, the rebel son
-          The goth in black, the hoods standing on the corner

Any of the above stereotypes can be made much more interesting if the writer develops them further. An easy way (which I’m not suggesting you do, but only offer it to make a point) is to take any one of those adjectives in the above list and link it with an unusual noun, for example, the misguided, religious goth in black, or the mob boss little girl. (I might actually enjoy reading these stories.) Obviously, some won’t work – preserve me from stories featuring sexy, obedient robots (also a stereotype) or bug-eyed cats.

How else might you lift your characters from the stereotype? Give them one strong motivation for a short story, and more than one for a novel. Think about what they care about, what their faults are, what their strengths are. Do any of these weaknesses and strengths contradict, or occur at the same time? Can you turn a character’s weakness into a strength? Think about relationships, for relationships can be stereotypes, as well. (When you think of your own, I suspect you’ll agree that you share a unique relationship with everyone you know. None of those relationships are the same, because the mix of people is different). Most of all, be honest in how your characters feel about their situations and problems – think of how you’d react, when you’re at your best and at your worst.

I'll cover reader respect in the next ABC's 'C' is for Characterization post.

Stay tuned. 


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