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On Deciding to Actually Become a Writer, and the Issue of Characterization

Today, I decided this morning, is the day I start writing again.

Obviously I don’t just mean on my blog. I have a handful of work-in-progress fiction pieces sitting forlornly in my harddrive or in my notebooks, just waiting for me to come back and finish them. Which I haven’t, because I am an undisciplined writer. I only write when the mood strikes me. This is because I am a perfectionist and therefore I have a lot of trouble with the “just get something on the page, you can edit it later” approach. It’s also because I haven’t entertained aspirations of publication since high school.

Now, I may be rethinking those absent aspirations a little bit. I have a friend who has been published on a small press. I have another friend who works as a copy editor for a new publisher geared towards my genre and my audience (YA speculative fiction). A fellow blogger is ironing out the details of a contract with Harper Collins. The list goes on. Suddenly, becoming published seems a lot more plausible.

Hitting it big? That’s a different story. If I pursue publishing it will be with the knowledge that I will most likely not become rich and/or famous from writing.

My reason for putting aside my dreams of being a published author was mainly born of cynicism. I assumed it probably wouldn’t happen, mostly because I didn’t really understand how the process worked. There was no self-deprecation involved; it wasn’t that I didn’t think I was worthy of being published, because frankly even in high school I wrote more complex sentences than Stephanie Meyer. Like being cast in a movie, it was one of those things that just didn’t happen to people you actually knew. Except now it is happening to people I know, and it’s because they’re putting the work in and making it happen. Plus there is also a bit of right-time-right-place going on, but you always need some of that.

Of course, all this talk of pursuing publication is hypothetical until I have a finished draft.

My most extensive project is a young adult fantasy novel that I talked a little bit about and posted an excerpt from when I got the Lucky 7 Award. I’m about halfway through writing it, based on my plot outline, and I’ve been working on it since about tenth grade (which, for those counting, is about seven years). It’s been one of those that I put away for a long time and then pick up for a few weeks, then put away again. The bulk of it was written during NaNoWriMo in 2009 or 2010, and since then I’ve been pecking away at little chunks of it. Today I was able to write about seven pages for it, though, which is exciting.

The biggest issue I have with this particular one is that I’ve plotted it out so thoroughly and envisioned it so many times that I already know it so well, I don’t feel the need to write it down. I read over what I have written and then jump to the outline and my mind fills in all the blanks, the dialogue, the look of all the characters, etc. etc. etc. Then I remember that if I want to share this story with people, I need to get it out of my head and onto paper. And then I sit down to try. And it goes well until I can’t think of a word I want to use, and then I stop. It’s a cycle.

But no longer! I’m resolved to write at least a little bit every day, and probably write here about any issues that I come across. Hence, today’s secondary topic: the issue of characterization.

My characters all seem very different to me, but how can I tell if that’s coming across to the reader? I know, I really can’t until somebody else reads it and tells me. But the thing is, I worry that my characters are too similar. Most of them are female, and many of them are in positions of leadership, and all but two or three of them are protagonists rather than antagonists. (That’s the problem with having a disembodied, external evil.) Therefore, they all end up having some of the same qualities which I consider to be something a good leader should have: intelligence, an even temper, compassion, that kind of thing. Yet, I don’t want them to become too homogenous. To differentiate them, I try to always include descriptions of inflection and facial expression, as well as of course different styles of speaking. I write in third person limited, so there is also some room for internal monologue.

My question to you readers is this: when you read a book, what helps you get the best sense of a character? Is it direct or indirect characterization, dialogue or description, etc? Come, comment, be free and help a writer out!

13 thoughts on “On Deciding to Actually Become a Writer, and the Issue of Characterization

  1. I find that indirect characterization helps me to envision the character. I like how a character is described from anthers pov.

    1. Yeah, I am a fan of indirect as well, especially in a first-person narrative! I always think it’s weird when a character goes on about their own personality. o_O

  2. Caitlin, I think we might be writing twins! I too struggle so much with perfectionism (I absolutely can’t leave a chapter behind, if it isn’t perfect yet…much to the chagrin of my agent) and characterization techniques. Plotting and the actual act of creating prose are my strengths, whereas characterization…not so much. Now after working at it for eons, I can at least go back through during revisions and improve it.

    Anyway, that was all to say: start with indirect characterization. I find that if I give the character touchstones through IC, she will organically grow in the other areas. Her dialogue will be easier to personalize; the direct characterizations from other characters will hold more value. Give the reader an idea who she is through IC, then add facets with the other tools. It’s that classic phrase that people pound into our heads: show, don’t tell. As much as I hate to say it, they’re totally right in this case.

    Incidentally…hooray for YA! We don’t mention it on Spinsters much, but I’m a YA writer myself. I don’t write on the speculative side of things, but I do love reading it. Congratulations on coming back to your book!

    1. Thanks Grace! Yes, part of my mantra while I’m writing is “You can always come back to it, you can always come back to it!” Yesterday I was so proud of myself; I was actually able to skip a planned chapter for which I couldn’t come up with anything. Show, don’t tell is definitely helpful when it comes to characters.

      And yes, woo for YA! The genre has kind of exploded and it makes me really happy. I feel like it validates most of the reading I’ve done in my life, haha.

  3. I think you have a great opportunity to show different kinds of leadership through your lead characters! While they may have core characteristics that are similar, each one could exemplify a different kind of leadership style that fits their race/culture.

    One of the more basic means of characterization is refining character voice through grammatical structures (does this character think in long compound sentences or more short and fragmented pieces), perspective (do they tend to focus on what’s happening around them or what’s in their head), and other stylistic choices like word/phrasing preferences when writing from a character’s perspective.

    Also, I’m willing to bet you can toss out the even tempered and compassionate qualities of a few of those leads…

    If all the leading characters are a type you think is ideal, you should probably rewrite with a type that you don’t think is ideal!

    Now, I should probably stop replying to blog posts and go finish my own story. 😉

    1. Ah yes, very good points Ash! I’ll try to keep some of those things in mind. I really want to have some people read it so far. I feel like I’m too close to it to objectively tell…anything really, haha. We must swap drafts and get together for reviews or something soon–as long as you’re not too busy. 😉

  4. I have no experience with writing. I do however read a lot. I love falling in love with a character. For example I am reading grave mercy. The author doesn’t give a exact description of what she looks like. The author tells me her thoughts and lots of dialog. If that makes sense. So in my head I have a pretty good idea of what kind of person she is or how the character would react.

    I hope that helps and I’d love to read your novel sometime!

    1. Hey, I think readers-only can give you just as much valuable advice as people who write. What you say absolutely makes sense.

      Also would you like to beta read for me? I think I still have your correct email, so I could send it to you 🙂

  5. Woo, I’m excited for you and your new resolution! Blogging about any stumbling blocks sounds like a good idea.

    I know it sometimes feels like extra work, but I find if I’m struggling with characterisation it can be good to take the characters out of the story and start doing some exercises with them. So, choose one and put yourself in her shoes, then try to answer a list of questions or imagine how she’d react to some strange situations. If you can work out how your characters answer or act differently in hypothetical situations, you should have a firmer grip on what differentiates them within your story.

    Hope that helps in some way. Can’t wait to read the finished thing! 🙂

    1. That’s a really good idea; and frankly since this is a fantasy novel I’m already writing tons of extra world-building material, so I’m not really worried about extra work, haha. Thanks! 😀

      1. Cool, I hope it works 🙂

  6. I think I really get a feel for a character through their dialogue and their actions. These are what make me fall in love with characters or hate them. The ways they respond to situations. I tend to ignore descriptions or forget them entirely, because I’m a bad reader. For me, the characters need to be dynamic and the most interesting aspect of a novel, but perhaps that’s a common thing.

    1. Also today I gave my professor a draft of a story I had to write and she was like “oh its overdramatic. You have to put it in context. You have to put footnotes.” My point is that I’m such a perfectionist that I was like ugh how annoying (keep in mind I’m not even a writer, I’m an engineer by training) I think its great. I hate it when people don’t like drafts of what I was written.

      b) I don’t get this footnotes thing…its a creative piece.

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