Friday, July 6, 2012

Character vs. Characterization

There's something awesome going on over at the Miss Snark's First Victim blog. Authoress has set up a Critique Partner Dating Service! There are 87 writers looking to pair up with someone for the mutual benefit of feedback and critique. How great is that?

Writers have posted a little something about themselves, how many manuscripts they've written, the genres they write, and their critique strengths. I think most everyone said they specialized in characterization and it got me to thinking. Does everyone know the difference between "character" and "characterization?" So I thought this would be good topic to blog about.

I have a metal hot pad with the inscription: Character is what we are. Reputation is what people think we are. The difference between character and characterization has a similar distinction. Characterization is outward appearance, like clothing, mannerisms, demographics, career, that sort of thing. It's what defines how we look and what we do. Character, on the other hand, defines who we are. We're made of complex layers that comprise our inner selves.

That all sounds a bit convoluted so the best way to accurately describe what I'm getting at is to offer an example through story.

Let's say Jack and Jill are driving separately on the highway during a heavy snow storm.

Characterization for Jack: He's an ex-con out of prison on parole. He borrowed a car to visit a sick friend, but driving is in direct violation of his parole.

Characterization for Jill: She's a high powered corporate attorney on her way to the courthouse for a trial she's spent two years preparing for. If she arrives late, there could be grounds for a mistrial.

Situation: There's a multiple car accident on the highway, and Jack and Jill decide to stop and see if they can help. They both make the same choice. Even though their characterization shows them as completely different people, they both choose to stop and help, which makes their character the same.

Others stop to offer assistance. Someone calls 911. Help is on the way. Jack and Jill can either leave, or stay and do what they can to help the injured. If Jack gets caught violating his parole, he could go back to prison. Jill risks being late for her trial and losing the case she's hoped to win for two years. What do they do? They both choose to stay. Their character is still the same.

A child is trapped in a car seat. Someone else is pinned beneath their steering wheel. A fire starts and is spreading toward the vehicles. The situation is dire, and Jack and Jill must choose what they'll do next. Will they save the child or the person pinned inside the car? Jill rescues the child and Jack helps release the man from the car. Jack and Jill make the same choice. Though their characterization is different, their character remains the same.

The point is that when someone is forced to react under pressure, no matter what or who they appear to be, their true character is revealed.

Characterization is fun to play with because you can throw just about anything together to create a quirky caricature. Nervous tics, odd clothing choices, strange habits... but it's all fluff and no substance. It can be a valid way to assemble distinctive characters that fit the roles in your story, but they have no character until they're placed in a situation that makes them prove what they're really made of.

There's this kooky lady who dances on one of busiest street corners in town wearing headphones and playing air guitar on a heavy plank of cardboard emblazoned with the Little Ceaser's Pizza logo. She has tons of energy as she waves at the cars passing by, holding up her cardboard guitar and pointing at the LCP logo. Is she nuts? Of course not. She's just doing her job. Is it effective? Probably. It's entertaining, I'll give her that. Here we have a real life example of characterization. She's a caricature. But... if someone got hit by a car while crossing her street, what would she do? I'll bet there's character hidden in there somewhere...

Can you turn the characterization of someone in your story into a character? Feel free to share in comments.


D. McCollum D. McCollum said...

I love the Ceasar's Pizza Chick! I see her all the time dancing on the street corner and wondered what her story was. thanks for sharing! Your example of Character vs. Characterization is right on. Thanks for that too!!

SC Author said...

Hehe, that video is hilarious :) I saw the Authoress thing as well! I sent out a few emails, hehe :) I never realized the Character vs. Characterization thing until now, but it makes PERFECT sense. Really shows how deep you can make a character. I'mna remember this for a long time :)

Thanks a ton! Great post!

SC Author said...

Woah, I totally forgot that you were one of the 87. I saw your post on my subscriptions... never mind, hehe.

Karen Duvall said...

Thanks, Diana! I just saw her again yesterday on my way home. I love the caricature she creates.

Thanks, SC! Good luck in your crit partner match-up!