Thursday, October 25, 2012

Are You Dressing Up Your Characters?

The other night I was rifling through the dress-up bin, looking for a potential Halloween costume for my two-year-old son.  When I found this elephant costume, it seemed like the perfect thing - just his size, simple, warm and ready to go.  And then I asked him to try it on.

If you can read his body language, you might guess what he thought of that idea.

Apparently dressing up is not his thing.

I recently read Stephen King's memoir On Writing.  One of the ideas he presents really got me thinking about the way I approach characterization in my writing.  I've always believed that truly profound characters have the ability to be autonomous, or think and act for themselves.  I may have one idea for how they interact with the plot of my story, but they have a completely different plan.

I know it may sound a little crazy, but there are even times I've had to wait for characters to name themselves.

Well, in King's book, he discusses the importance of honesty in writing.  He acknowledges that characters, situations, plot lines and other aspects of our work may not always match up with the status quo, or our own worldview, and, as he points out, that's okay.  In fact, it's much better if we dispel with our own notions and allow our characters to portray who they really are.

We can dress them up, but that doesn't make our writing stronger.

So in honor of October 31st, remember - it's okay to let your children parade around the neighbourhood dressed-up for Halloween.  But let your characters be themselves - your writing will be better for it.


  1. I just have to say, that's exactly how my daughter is with dressing up most of the time. When she wants to, she'll get very into it, but if she's not interested, she is NOT going to cooperate.

    Nice analogy with writing, too. If we're just dressing up our characters they're not going to sound real. One of my pet peeves is the small set of character misfortunes that always seem to crop up to 'give a character complexity.' Really, how many people are orphans these days? Yet in movies it seems like there's always a character who lost both his or her parents in a car accident/murder/other unfortunate event. It's so uncommon in life and yet so common in TV/movies/books that I immediately read that particular sad story as a contrived 'costume' to make the character sadder than thou.

    1. (I should make it clear before I offend anyone, though, that it's totally fine to have a character who is an orphan if there is a plot-based reason for it. To give an example, in Grimm Detective Nick Burkhardt is a orphan, which to me came off as 'sadder than thou' until it was explained as a murder and, even better, it was revealed his mother was still alive!)



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