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WRITING PROMPT - Characterisation


Holding back details of character is a technique often used in the crime genre – but what details are essential to effective characterisation in general fiction?

Margo Hofmann Jurgens: Look to purpose in character

When I was growing up reading children’s novels, I remembered the perfunctory ‘emerald eyes’ and ‘long flowing brown hair’ of characters. As I consumed more sophisticated fiction, effective characterisation blended into either the character’s purpose and/or persona - or with the setting: a tomboy with hair like dirt, a teenage warrior described as ‘slender as a knife’. Such details integrate the character with the setting to help the reader understand why this individual is relevant at all.

Ultimately, character reveals itself primarily through action. Not what is said, but how it is said and when. As with any individuals we encounter, we learn the most when we shock them into reaction. When they don’t have time to lie. When they haven’t prepared a constructed version of events. Character, then, is best revealed not through descriptive detail, but through manifesting precise circumstances to which characters must react, thereby revealing values, principles and purpose.

Jennifer Neil: A character's hidden traits

One of the many characters the author was writing about was a woman. The author, a man, saw her once on a train trip. They travelled fifty miles sharing a carriage, from Pretoria to a remote town in South Africa. After they departed from the train, having spoken to each other briefly during the trip, he decided what sort of woman she was.

His conclusions where based on: what she was wearing; her make-up, which was very light; where she told him she came from; and her general demeanour during the trip.

As a writer, he couldn't wait to put pen to paper, using her as the dowdy vicar’s wife in the novel he was writing. They said their goodbyes and the woman walked across the road to the Station Hotel where she had a job as a sex worker.

Peter A Stankovic: Plot vs Character

Character is everything. Without character, there is no earthly reason to buy a book. Steven Seagal, a 1980s action star, made a number of movies in that decade and he became a celebrity as someone with some style. He was a martial arts expert in film as well as in real life and he played a sinister yet powerful leading man.

In the past thirty years, Seagal has fallen off the radar. He’s been in plenty of films, around thirty or so, but all went straight to DVD and none achieved any critical acclaim. These movies had predictable plots but no memorable characters. Seagal apparently acted like a cardboard figure, almost sleep-walking through his scenes.

On the other hand, films with great characters and little plot development have been able to entertain and enthral audiences. The same goes for novels.

Great plots with great characters are best of all. Look at the most famous film franchise in history: James Bond. As the films have outrageous plots with outrageous characters, as well as plenty of sex, they have been extremely successful. Unfortunately, ex-Bond girls belong to a special club, one to which I’m waiting to be invited.



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