Saturday, January 9, 2016

Charaters: What Illustration and Art Can Teach Us

By Lacey Gunter

Well,  I thought about writing a post on New Years resolutions and writing goals, snce I just gave a lesson on that in one of my writing groups. But I think the topic has been covered well enough in the past week.  So instead I have decided to talk about characters.

It is a common phrase in the writing world to say a character falls flat.  When we hear this from critique partners or editors about our own characters, we may understand what the critiquer is saying, but not have a good sense about how to fix it.  A good way I have learned to think about it, is to consider it from a drawing or illustration perspective.

When cartoon illustrators design a character, they often exaggerate or emphasize a certain trait to such a point that it becomes a character's defining trait. Illustrators have the freedom to do this because cartoon characters are not expected to look realistic. That is one of the appeals of the art form.

Drawing  a realistic portrait of a person, is nearly opposite of that. It is amazing how off a portrait can look when the proportions of the face are inaccurate by only a little bit. It takes a lot of time and skill to figure out the proportions of a person well enough to make a portrait look like it's intended subject.

Designing characters in a novel can be the same way. If you don't get the proportions of their personality right, they can seem unrealistic or one dimensional.  So how can we use this idea to help us fix a flat character?

Well, first think about the things that define you. You might be a mom, a wife, a daughter, and a sister. You might be a writer and also have a day job.  You might have a calling or responsibility in your church congregation. Maybe you take on other roles in the community.  Each of these ways you define yourself could be thought of as aspects of your personality.  In our own lives we can give a level of priorities to each of these roles. For example, you might find that your role as a mother is more important than your role in your job or as a volunteer in your community.  Using this ordering of priorities we could also think of these roles as proportions of your personality. For example you could say you were 35% mom, 35% wife, 20% writer, so on and so forth. If any one of these roles took up 95% of your personality you would seem like a pretty flat character. And that's not really very realistic either.

How we define these proportions will affect the way we act and think and make choices. If I define myself as 35% mom, then I cannot be expected to be universally focusing on what is going on in my kids lives and how my decisions affect them. 65% of the time other things are pressing on my time and resources, such as giving attention to my husband, getting writing projects done and taking a nap when I am under the weather.

Likewise, you need to give your characters the proper proportions to make them look realistic.  The typical example that is given is "Your character is all good. They need to make a bad decision or have a selfish thought once in a while." While this hints at the idea, we can and need to make it much more nuanced.  What's really being said, is there needs to be more conflict or exchange between the aspects of your character's personality.

An easy way to do this is to do the same role defining and proportions I described above for your characters. Then when a character is at a junction of thought or action or decision, place your character in each of the roles that character takes on and ask "What would a person with that role think or do at this junction?" Obviously, some of these thoughts or decisions are going to be different or conflicting with each other.  Then once you have established what each of these actions are, make sure that, on a whole, the thoughts or decisions you end up having your character do come close to matching up with the role proportions you have defined for that character.

I hope that helps, my friends. Have a great week!

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