Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Writing Thoughts: Characterization

I try to become a better writer every day. I read Stephen King's "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft" and have read numerous articles from famous writers trying to piece together how to improve. Writing is a hard domain to break into. There are literally thousands of writers of different genres and varying skill levels. Trying to make your work speak to a wide audience, to rise about the din is difficult and sometimes disheartening. I wanted to give some advice to any writers out there who are on the fence about writing their first comic, or novel, or advertising jingle, or what have you.

Today I wanted to share thoughts on characterization. To me pacing and characterization are what make or break a story. You can have a fantastic, creative idea but pacing dictates the emotional beats to your story. Characterization is the framework for the reader to become invested in your characters. If a reader doesn't care on some level about your characters then the emotional impact you expect from good writing just won't be there, and everything falls flat.


When I was a teenager I learned that to make multi-dimensional characters they had to have strengths and flaws. This would make characters come off as real, because in real life, people had strengths and flaws. It made the characters "relatable." This is not a bad idea, however, I think people's "strengths" and "flaws" shouldn't just be static traits, they should flow from the characters inner morality. Sure, your main character in your new detective novel has the benefit of being tough as nails, but is a heavy drinker and can't stay in a stable relationship. To me, that's just the start. I want to know how my character would react given a moral dilemma. 

Here's how the system works: Imagine your character in a situation where they have to decide what to do in a moral situation. Here are some examples:

1. An old woman is being accosted by a robber who is trying to steal her purse. What does your character do?

2.  A friend is accused of a crime, and it's unclear whether they did it or not. He needs to evade the police, does your character help?

 3. A village is being attacked and one of the peasants is trying to save a religious relic from being stolen/destroyed. What do you do?

To me, this process creates richer characters and ones that act more natural. Our flaws and strengths, to me, flow from our inner sense of morality and ethics, or lack thereof. To know what our character would do when pressed helps us deliver smooth scenes where characters act naturally, and it also helps us with the pay-offs in character arcs because changes in characterization will not just come out of nowhere.

To take examples from modern fiction, in Star Wars: The Clone Wars Season 5, Ahsoka Tano is accused of a terrorist attack against the Jedi Temple. She is wrongfully convicted and must escape to prove her innocence. She befriends an old enemy, Ventress, and is hunted down by her master Anakin who is torn between loyalty to the Jedi Order and loyalty to his apprentice. Yes, it's a bit of a trope, there's a whole movie called the Fugitive that had the same premise. But it's a great moral quandary! 

"I'm innocent!" "I don't care!"

Anakin chooses to hold the Jedi Order above his Padawan. This tells us so much about Anakin's mental state and his wants and desires. We don't just say "He wants to be a Jedi" as one of his character traits, we DEMONSTRATE it to the audience by pushing him to literally hunt down his own Padawan because the Jedi Order decided they didn't want to be accused of favoritism. This also functions as one more nail in the coffin to Anakin staying on the Light Side of the Force, because the Jedi Order's actions leave such a bitter feeling inside because on some level Anakin felt he betrayed someone he actually had feeling for, rather than the Jedi Order which he believes he's only obligated to have feelings for. Deep stuff.

Hard to come back after this

In my opinion this is one of the most dramatic scenes and it's also part of the reason Ahsoka is such a fan favorite: we learn about her through her moral decisions in relationship to Anakin. It's why the emotional impact stuck where some other episodes of the Clone Wars may have fallen a bit more flat. Try to include this idea when building the characters for your comic and let me know how it goes!

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