Book Review, Books!, Signal Boost, Weekend Writer, Writing

Weekend Writer: Characterization, or Chapter Five of Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer

Hey all, Dani here.

Greetings and happy Sunday. I hope you are all having a lovely day. Currently I am deep in the middle of a whole lot of blog prep as well as trying to get everything finalized for my job interview after work tomorrow and doing the final preparations for Cincinnati Comic Expo next weekend. So Damian and I are busy busy busy for the next few days. Anyway, it is time for the next installment of my Weekend Writer series. We are just over halfway through this book, and thanks to a Twitter poll, I know which book I’m chronicling next. I guess that’s a fun way to say that you should follow me on Twitter to have a say in future posts in this series.

It would be really cool for all of us who want to write creatively (whether that is poetry, stories, novellas, novels, screenplays, RPGs, video games, whatever) to be able to help uplift and inspire each other, and keep ourselves motivated to strive for our dreams, so I decided to start this blog series here. This series will be a lot of me working through books on writing and creativity, maybe doing and sharing some writing exercises, and possibly doing some writing based discussion posts. It’s going to be an adventure for sure, and I hope it helps you as much as it is helping me.

Wonderbook

Summary

This all-new definitive guide to writing imaginative fiction takes a completely novel approach and fully exploits the visual nature of fantasy through original drawings, maps, renderings, and exercises to create a spectacularly beautiful and inspiring object. Employing an accessible, example-rich approach, Wonderbook energizes and motivates while also providing practical, nuts-and-bolts information needed to improve as a writer. Aimed at aspiring and intermediate-level writers, Wonderbook includes helpful sidebars and essays from some of the biggest names in fantasy today, such as George R. R. Martin, Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Catherynne M. Valente, and Karen Joy Fowler, to name a few.

Praise for Wonderbook: 

“Jammed with storytelling wisdom.” —Fast Company’s Co.Createblog

“This is the kind of book you leave sitting out for all to see . . . and the kind of book you will find yourself picking up again and again.” —Kirkus Reviews online

“If you’re looking for a handy guide to not just crafting imaginative fiction like sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, but to writing in general, be sure to pick up a copy of Steampunk Bibleauthor Jeff Vandermeer’s lovingly compiled Wonderbook.”  —Flavorwire

“Jeff Vandermeer and Jeremy Zerfoss have created a kaleidoscopically rich and beautiful book about fiction writing.”  —Star Tribune

“Because it is so layered and filled with text, tips, and links to online extras, this book can be read again and again by both those who want to learn the craft of writing and those interested in the process of others.” —Library Journal

Chapter Five: Characterization

“For many writers, all else comes out of characterization: plot, situation, structure, even the reader’s perception of setting.” — pg 177

Characterization is all about the details and portrayals of characters. They are pretty much the lenses through which the reader gets to experience the world. So this chapter has a lot of crossover with some of our other story elements.

There are four types of characterization within stories: Obsessive Immersive, Full or Rounded, Partial, and Flat. Obsessive Immersive is the use of stream of consciousness to get close to a character. This is not a camera following that character but instead us actually being in that character’s head and having our whole worldview filtered through that character. Full, which is also sometimes known as Rounded, gives us the character’s thoughts, feelings, personal history, etc, but doesn’t erase the view of the world. Then there is Partial characterization, which most fiction utilizes. There are two types of Partial characterization: Idiosyncratic and Type Driven. In Idiosyncratic the characters are not flat but we also don’t fully know them; they are all mysterious and unique. While in Type Driven, individuality is mostly absent and instead types and tropes are utilized. Type driven characterization favors external plots instead of character driven narrative. Finally there is Flat characterization, commonly used by folktales and fairy tales, where fleshing out the characters is detrimental to the story.

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So who should we be writing about? There are some basic questions that can be asked to help with this particular conundrum.

  • Is the viewpoint character the one with the most to gain or lose?
  • Is this character with the most agency in the narrative, and does agency drive your view of character more than the idea of external constraints on the character?
  • Is this the character who most interests you or that you are most passionate about?
  • What limitations will you have as a result of using this character?
  • If you are using first person, does this character have an interesting way of expressing things?
  • Do you want the reader to feel close to this character or more distant?
  • What does this person want/need?

In addition to those generalized questions, there are some specific questions to ask in order to get to know the characters within your story. These questions include asking about the character’s physical appearance, quirks of behavior or thought, habits, beliefs, hopes or dreams, talents and abilities, insecurities, and secrets and lies.

“What you find out about your character should be placed within a larger context: the continuum of how your character acts in terms of job, relationships, place in society, and other environmental factors. You probably won’t use everything you know about a character in your story.” — pgs 191-192

I have heard so many writers talk about knowing so much more about their characters than they ever reveal in a book or a whole series of books.

Of course there are also some general characterization mistakes for beginner and intermediate writers to avoid. These include:

  • accidentally writing about a sociopath or psychopath
  • forgetting to love the evil
  • being too quick to kill – or to revive
  • ignoring your secondary characters
  • “thick” deployment of character backstory
  • disconnect between environment and character point of view
  • seeing your characters clearly, without prejudice or stereotyping
  • perpetuating the idea of one story through the characters whose lives you portray

These are all good things to consider when writing, and honestly they also are important factors for creating vibrant worlds in D&D and other RPGs as well. So I am definitely learning a lot from reading these chapters.

After all of these basics, it is also important to create further depth and nuance by thinking about how the characters receive info about people. What do other people think of the character(s)? What does the character think that people think about them? How does the character think about themselves? What is the actual truth about the character? From there you add nuance and depth by employing ideas beyond the basics.

The first of these ideas is Consistent Inconsistency, which is that characters/people are not as consistent and logical as they often claim to be. After that is Action Versus Thought, where people respond differently to people based on their words than they do to the actions of a person. Then there is Transfer of Energy, which is basically that energy, whether negative or positive, generated by one person tends to affect others. After that is People as Symbols or Ideas, which is pretty much that relationships can be more than they seem. An example that the book gives is a widow who befriends an old friend of her dead husbands in order to hold on to that memory of her spouse. Lastly there is the Secret Life of Objects, which talks about the power of objects, specifically that people have an attachment to items.

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The final segment of this chapter is that of character arcs, the journey a character takes over the course of a whole story. One basic arc is that of the hero’s journey, which has three main phases: Separation, Initiation, and Return. Separation covers the call to adventure and by the end of this section the hero crosses over into the land of adventure, whether that is a literal crossing over or a metaphysical one. The second phase is Initiation, where the hero faces a series of tests and often finds themselves separated from the ideas of the world in which they started. By the end of this phase the hero often refuses to return to their former world. Finally is the Return stage, where the hero does finally decide to return home, but it requires some sort of help. By returning to the former world, the hero ends up becoming a master of both worlds, finding a balance to their life and sharing their knowledge with others.

“If you get stuck, remember what may seem simple: We all have obsessions, and we all have complex emotions. Remember what your characters most desire and how they express that desire. Also remember that no one can, or should, know everything about the characters they create.” — pg 210

Where to Get a Copy

If my thoughts on this fifth chapter have helped you out at all, you can try picking up a copy of the whole book from AmazonBarnes & NobleBooks-a-millionBook Depository, or your local independent bookstore.

You can also check with your local library.

Links to Other Wonderbook posts

Chapter One / Chapter Two / Chapter Three / Chapter Four / Chapter Six / Chapter Seven / Workshop Appendix and Additional Writing Exercises

7 thoughts on “Weekend Writer: Characterization, or Chapter Five of Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer”

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