Monday, April 4, 2016
Elizabeth George: Characterization is the Most Important Element in Fiction
In Write Away, Elizabeth George presents her method for writing fiction. Here I will discuss her approach to creating characters.
First, though, she has an idea for what her novel will be about and expands that idea as much as possible to have a solid understanding of what the story line is.
Once she has a good idea for her novel, the next thing she does is to begin developing her characters. Without a thorough understanding of her characters, she wouldn’t know where to start writing the story. Characters are the impetus for other aspects of the novel. It’s also through understanding her characters that she develops much of her plot and subplots.
Her character analysis can start anywhere, with any piece of information about a character. She writes in stream-of-consciousness fashion about each and every character who might appear in the novel. In the analysis, she wants to present everything she can about the character, but she is mainly concerned with five pieces of information:
1) The character’s CORE NEED. This a need that originates deep within a person and is the force that drives a person to do the things he does. The need is so important to a person that, when it is thwarted, it can cause a pathological reaction, which leads to the second important piece of information about a character,
2) The character’s PATHOLOGICAL MANUEVER. This is what the character does under stress, how he reacts when his core need is being denied or interfered with. It displays as some of the negative ways of coping, such as becoming obsessive or hysterical.
3) The character’s SEXUALITY. She wants to know what his attitude to sex is and his sexual history. This may or may not show up in the story, but it’s important to know.
4) A PAST EVENT in the character’s life that has had a significant influence on him. Again, this may not show up in the story, but it tells a great deal about the character and why he is the way he is.
5) WHAT THE CHARACTER WANTS IN THE STORY. That is, what the character wants throughout the story and what the character wants in each individual scene. Of course, this is influenced by the previous four pieces of information about the character. What a character wants isn’t always clear cut or derived from one basic need. It can result from multiple factors. And it may not be directly expressed.
Knowing all of this about each character suggests subplots and many directions a story may take. It can lead to sources of conflict and plot development. This isn’t formulaic writing, it’s organic, and can lead to many surprises. I think this approach to characterization is well worth exploring.
What about you? Do you have a specialized approach to creating characters?