Thursday, August 7, 2008

Character analysis . . . how do you do that?

I finished watching The Count Of Monte Cristo with my collegiate and extraordinarily literary daughter. She mentioned how the book had been more than a bit boring, but the character development and analysis was awesome.

From a writing perspective, authors have a certain . . . I hesitate to use the word, but we do have a formula that helps develop characters. Buzz words are goal, conflict, motivation, mentors, allies, enemies, accepting the quest and the list goes on.

However, I wondered from a purely literary viewpoint (my daughter is an English Lit major) what did she look for?

My first surprise was that it strongly depended on whether the book was a single title or part of series. It seems real character analysis can't fully take place until the end -- the real end, if that's a series -- is read. Case in point: the Twilight series. While the characters can be understood inside each book, they can not be fully appreciated until the end of the 4th book. A personal favorite of mine is the Dresden series (Jim Butcher). Wizard Harry (no, I don't know if JR or Butcher penned this name first) Dresden becomes embroiled in a series of magical mishaps in each book. And while, it seems straight forward -- the whole good against evil thing -- there is tremendous depth as the books tie together in a stream. It is possible to understand Harry's character in each book, but I must agree with my daughter, it would be impossible to fully analyze his character until the end of the series. Since Mr. Butcher hasn't finished the last book yet, I'll need to let you know.

Second, my daughter pointed out that relationships between the protagonist and other characters in a book will assist mightly in character analysis. As writers, we employ secondary characters to illuminate aspects of the character that would seem like 'author intrusion' if simply dropped on page or to advance the plot, but how much more could writers give to the reader if the relationship between the 'page' people was considered? Back to Butcher's Dresden series, he introduces secondary character that seem cardboard, perfectly predictable, the reader knows exactly what to expect, then like a certain famous chef, he 'bams' the reader with the unexpected. Butcher finds an obscure part of the secondary characters personality, exploits it and offers the reader real depth for this minor player. How does that affect the main man? Quite simply, Harry Dresden is often turned on his ear, just like people are in real life. When the expected becomes the unexpected, when the unworthy villain becomes salvageable, when friends betray and enemies protect, then it is more than just a secondary character advancing plot, it's about relationships. What readers learn about Harry Dresden as he faces these developments tells about the real man he is and the frightening and sometimes ill-fated choices he must makes.

Thirdly, my daughter always takes into consideration the theme in the book. All right, this can be shaky ground for some authors. Many will theme a book in advance, they'll have the plot points that reinforce, correlate the settings to enhance, and then some fly by the seat of their pants and are clueless to the theme until they type THE END. For those authors, half will thread the theme intuitively and half will need to catch it in rewrites. Wait, those are wrong percentages. Some authors never catch the theme and it will show in the level of writing. While the overall-needs-to-apply-to-everyone thing sounds as though it should be mandatory, many a manuscript has become printed and bound without a theme in sight. So as writers, the need to consider the universal 'rule' is necessary but to tie said theme back to the protagonist is crucial.

Writers look from the inside out -- always considered how it goes on page. Perhaps the real joyous reading happens when that's reversed. Seeing the character in the big picture as in reading to the end of the book or the series, considering every aspect of the character's relationships, and finally to offer a theme translates into a 'keeper' book.

As writers, we love our characters. The stronger desire should be to impel our readers to love them as well. Consider breaking down the character in his or her world to determine if the protagonist meets a true 'literary' critique, and will become the characters that patrons line up to read about again and again.

How do you analyzes your characters?
Who are some of the memorable characters in print? On film?

5 comments:

Sue L said...

Wonderful, insightful post! I've come to realize that characterization and theme are really the two most important aspects - at least to me.

Marilyn Brant said...

Fabulous post, Sandra!

I think the thing I love most about characters I read (and the thing I'm always trying to do as I write) is when I can believe a character behaves in a genuine and human way. Which doesn't mean they're always good or nice or likable, simply TRUE. I probably base every one of my evaluations on that.

L.A. Mitchell said...

I really gush over the Count of Monte Cristo movie. I'll leave it to you to figure out why. High school English was never so fun. I'm SO shallow.

I adore theme. It's my favorite part of writing. I always worry about the potential to go overboard, though. Hard to know how much symbolism is too much.

Andrea Geist said...

Interesting post. I like how you brought the character of your daughter in as a focal point fo what the writer should do or know. And since I know a little about the daughter character and the blog author - it would be prudent to learn from them as they are wise, caring and strong women that know their own self-worth.

Pam said...

What does your daughter say about Buffy? That's a terrific lesson in seasonal arc (or book arc for us) vs. series arc. I would even go a step back and say show (chapter?) arc.

Since I'm a panster, my characters jump at me with odd quirks, goals and motivations. They little &$@!#s even change on me mid-book when I didn't even give them permission to!

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