Posted by: carolannwilliams | October 19, 2009

Characterization: Externalize

A piece of fiction that’s all in a character’s head is rarely successful. Samuel Beckett could do it, but for the rest of us it’s an approach fraught with peril.  “I feel so distraught.” “He thought she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.”  “Where would he go, what would he do, how would he live now that he’d lost his job?” Clunk. It’s the classic telling rather than showing, and it frequently presents itself in the false guise of characterization.

What characters think cannot substitute for what they do. And what they feel cannot merely be reported; it must in some way be manifest.

Cruising the internet I recently came across a brief description (where? by whom? I don’t know) of a recent TV sitcom episode. The main character is engaged to be married (or in a serious relationship; again, I don’t remember) and an old girlfriend appears on the scene who is drop-dead gorgeous. The guy is beside himself. He has to choose! But he can’t choose! So what happens? He gets constipated. This is the external manifestation of his internal state. He’s in an emotional bind, so he gets physically bound up. His internal state has been externalized, and much to the benefit of the sitcom where it serves as the necessary running joke of the episode.

Now this is a pretty crude (as in, lacking finesse) example, but it serves to make the point. The great American poet Williams Carlos Williams famously said, “No ideas but in things.” What he meant was, if you ground your writing in the immediate, concrete world you will have a much more powerful work. Your reader will live your character’s feelings with him; your reader will even live your ideas. Live. That’s what’s key. Living within the immediate reality of a novel is what keeps the pages turning.

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